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This is a work of fiction. Any names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons--living or dead--is entirely coincidental. Owned by the Bodyguard copyright 2016 by Ashley Hall. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission.

TABLE OF CONTENTS Chapter One Chapter Two Chapter Three Chapter Four Chapter Five Chapter Six Chapter Seven Chapter Eight Chapter Nine Chapter Ten Chapter Eleven Chapter Twelve Chapter Thirteen Chapter Fourteen Chapter Fifteen Chapter Sixteen Chapter Seventeen Chapter Eighteen Chapter Nineteen Chapter Twenty Chapter Twenty-One Chapter Twenty-Two Chapter Twenty-Three Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Five Chapter Twenty-Six Chapter Twenty-Seven Chapter Twenty-Eight Chapter Twenty-Nine Chapter Thirty Chapter Thirty-One Free Bonus Book: GRIFFIN Sneak Preview of OWNED BY THE MOB BOSS Other Works by Ashley Hall Ashley Hall Mailing List

Chapter One Anita “Good morning, Anita.” “Good morning, Susan.” I smiled at the front desk woman as I breezed through the front doors of Rocker & Powell, Attorneys at Law. I’d only lived in Durango, Colorado for about three weeks, but I loved it so far. It was boring. It was quiet. It was absolutely everything I needed after spending the past five years in hell. “How was your weekend?” I smiled, setting my bag down on my desk. “It was good,” I said slowly. “A little boring.” I couldn’t help but blush. “I’m finally fixing up the inside of that cottage. I got such a good deal on it! But wow, it needed so much work.” Susan nodded as though she understood. She was a little older than me – maybe late twenties – with a bubbly head of blonde hair and bright blue eyes. Despite our differences, I really liked her. She was sweet and caring, not the type of woman I was used to being around. I knew that if she ever discovered my background, she’d probably hate me. “How was yours?” Susan grinned. “I had a date,” she said with a secretive hint in her voice. “Derek finally asked me out.” She glanced down at her lap self-consciously. “I told him, as long as he doesn’t mind two girls for the price of one!” I laughed politely. Susan was a single mom, and she often joked about how difficult it was to find men interested in dating someone who wasn’t child-free. I couldn’t understand it; she was obviously gorgeous and fun. Why wouldn’t a guy want someone like her? Because brats are trouble. I shivered at the recollection of Mack’s – my ex’s – voice inside my head. Getting away from Mack was just one of the reasons I’d moved to Durango, and one of the reasons I knew I could never go back home to California. I’d grown up in Carlsbad, and for years I’d never thought of leaving. But after things with Mack turned sour, well, I knew that if I didn’t get out, I’d probably be dead within a year or two. “I’m sure it’ll work out,” I told her. The office was quiet for a Monday. Both of our lawyers – Mr. Rocker and Mr. Powell – were in court, and I knew that I could expect a long morning of editing documents and preparing motions for later court dates this week. Still, I felt happy. It was such a welcome change from everything that I’d

run away from that it almost seemed like a dream. Hell, it even seemed too good to be true at times. I couldn’t believe that I’d made it out of Carlsbad and begun to turn my life around. And to think that I was only twenty-two! ### When I first met Mack, it was like a fairytale. He was three years older than me – seventeen to my fourteen – and he seemed like a real man. He had hair on his chest and bulging, muscular biceps. When he smiled at me, I felt my heart was going to melt out of my body and drip onto the floor. My friends all teased me about having a crush, but I knew I was right and they were wrong: this wasn’t just a crush, it was true love. I spent hours doodling Mack’s name in my school notebooks, blowing off my studies. It was just as well. I’d never been great in school anyhow. And obsessing over Mack really gave me something to think about, something I thought I’d want for the rest of my life. The day he first asked me out, I thought I was in heaven. He came up to me in the parking lot after school, where I was waiting for a ride home from my mom. With his tight bootcut jeans and black leather jacket, I thought he looked tough and sexy. When we made eye contact, my cheeks burned bright red with excitement and shock that someone like him would ever want someone like me. “You wanna go to the movies this weekend, Anita?” I had stammered and blushed and bit my lip. “Yeah,” I said softly. “That would be great. When are you picking me up?” Mack snorted. He spat on the ground and sucked his teeth. “I ain’t pickin’ you up,” he said. “You meet me there. I can’t have my parents seeing me with a girl.” He said it like a dirty word. I should have known at the time, should have taken it as a red flag. But I couldn’t – it was like there was some secret, cosmic rope pulling me towards Mack and no matter what I did, I couldn’t pull away. He’d already become the center of my universe, and we’d barely talked! Thinking of going on a real date with him was too good to be true. That weekend, I met him at the movies after spending a painstaking hour crimping my hair and applying glitter eye shadow to my lids. I had to do it all in secret: Mom and Dad were real strict, and if they ever knew I was planning to meet up with a boy three years my senior, I knew that I’d really catch hell. But I lied, and told them I was going out with a girlfriend. Dad didn’t ask any questions after that. I knew talking about girl stuff always made him squeamish. I could hardly wait to see my Prince Charming. When I skipped up to the movie theater, I was shocked to see Mack already there, smoking a cigarette. It occurred to me then that I thought he’d stand me up. Somehow, I wasn’t actually convinced that he liked me. It seemed improbable. How could someone as sexy and grown-up as Mack want me, a skinny little fourteen-year-old girl?

That night turned out to be the best night of my life so far. Mack bought us tickets to a movie and popcorn, which we shared. Every time my fingers touched his in the tub of popcorn, I shivered with lust. Just sitting next to him was enough to set me off, and the electricity crackled between us as the movie started. Now, I couldn’t tell you what we saw. In fact, I barely even watched the movie. I was more taken with Mack: his sexy profile, the scent of his cologne wafting over from the seat next to mine. I was enchanted by him. I imagined him taking me home and kissing me gently on the lips. Maybe we’d even French! I’d never Frenched before, although I had kissed a couple of guys by the time I was a freshman in high school. My friend Cory always told me that I moved too fast, but I was determined to prove her wrong once and for all. I didn’t move too fast – I moved at exactly the right pace to entice Mack Dawson. When the movie was over, Mack asked if I wanted to go for a drive. I was nervous – I remember that my skin was cold and clammy and my stomach kept turning over and over. I was so thrilled at the idea of being alone with him! But as soon as we were driving through the country, I realized that I might have gotten more than I bargained for. After all, Mack was close to an adult. My palms began to sweat and itch as I realized that he’d probably had sex before. Like, actual sex. I wondered if my parents would kill me if they knew where I was. Mack pulled the car over to an overlook, by the mountains. The night air was cool and I shivered – I’d only worn a tank top with my favorite pair of jeans. Mack grinned when he saw me with my arms wrapped around myself. He slid out of his jacket and passed it over to me in one smooth motion, without losing focus on the road. I shivered again – not because I was cold, but because the jacket smelled deliciously like him. Like danger, like spicy cologne. Like illicit cigarettes smoked after dark in some parking lot in the middle of nowhere, watching the stars. As the car rolled to a slow stop, Mack turned off the headlights. For a moment, everything was black. Then my eyes adjusted and I could see his eyes, staring right at me. I felt like he could see me without my clothes on, like he could see everything that I was and everything that I felt. It was the most exposed sensation that I’d ever had, and I struggled to hold his gaze. “Thanks for inviting me out tonight,” I said shyly. “I had a lot of fun.” Mack grinned, exposing a row of white teeth. They weren’t too even; I could tell that he needed braces and hadn’t had them, but the overall effect was still sexy as hell. I blushed. “You’re a real babe,” Mack said. I blushed even harder as he reached out to stroke my cheek. As he ran his hand down the side of my face, he wrapped his other arm around my shoulders and tried to pull me closer. At first, it felt awkward: I was still buckled into my seat belt and I giggled nervously as we struggled together for a moment. Finally, I managed to unbuckle the nylon belt holding me against the seat and I launched forward into Mack’s arms.

He pressed his lips to mine and I closed my eyes, savoring the feel of the kiss. My first real kiss. His chin was rough with stubble and the usual teenage acne, but that didn’t matter. What mattered was the sensation of him, wrapped around me, making me feel safe. The smell of cologne and cigarette smoke was enough to make me dizzy. When he slipped his tongue in my mouth, I almost drew back because the sensation was something unlike that which I’d ever felt. His tongue wasn’t slimy, but it was viscerally wet. After a moment, I began to enjoy the sensation, and I found that I couldn’t imagine kissing without it. Mack slid his hand down my back and pressed me closer. The gesture was both familiar and startlingly possessive. A shiver of lust crawled down my spine as I felt my body slam against his. Our kiss deepened and the sensations coursing through my body grew even more intense as I moaned softly into Mack’s mouth. “God,” Mack muttered. He tangled his hands in my hair and tugged – not hard enough to hurt, but hard enough to make my eyes roll back in my head. I couldn’t believe this – I was finally here, making out with a hot guy in his car! I was finally making it! Mack grabbed one of my hands and tugged it towards him. He set it on his lap and began rubbing his crotch with my hand grasped in his. I felt a huge bulge under the fly of his jeans and I almost cried out with surprise. His dick felt so big – I was suddenly afraid that whatever we were doing, whatever sex was, that it wouldn’t work. He’s not going to fit, I realized as Mack rubbed himself faster and faster against my hand. I began to find the rhythm and after a moment, Mack let his hand fall away and I continued pleasuring him on my own. The sensation swarming through my body was incredible. I felt like my skin was on fire, like fireworks were exploding right beneath the surface. As I rubbed Mack, I noticed a change in his own behavior: he began breathing more heavily and his face grew damp with sweat. The car was filled with an intense, musky odor. When he uttered a groan of pleasure and jerked his hips against my hand, I began rubbing him faster than ever before. Then Mack suddenly shoved my hand away, but not before I’d felt a touch of wet denim under my fingertips. He grinned at me again, panting like a dog. “That’s enough for now,” Mack said. He pulled a cigarette out of his pocket, lit it with the knob on the dashboard, and leaned back in his seat with a smug expression on his handsome face. I should have known at the time it would be the last time I felt truly happy around Mack Dawson.

Chapter Two Anita Susan and I always got lunch together – it was just one of our many rituals at Rocker & Powell. I felt happy and confident that I was finally making a real friend in Durango, even if I couldn’t help but feel a little self-conscious. I was really out of practice when it came to talking with strangers. And I had that past, after all: I couldn’t hide it forever, but I knew that it would be wise to try. “You want salads or burgers today?” Susan leaned over my desk with her hands on her hips. “Come on, it’s 12:10! Normally we’re already eating!” She rubbed her stomach with one hand and started to laugh. “Alright, alright,” I replied, pretending to grumble as I stood up from my desk and pulled a cardigan from one of the bottom drawers. “What do you think about sushi, actually?” I pulled a face. “I’ve been craving it, and I can’t understand why.” Susan laughed. “Sounds good to me, Café Nori?” I nodded. Nori was right around the corner from Rocker & Powell. I liked the small restaurant a lot – it was one of the best things I’d found in Durango. The servers always remembered us by name and it had a cute, small-town feel despite being a trendy sushi café. The weather outside had turned sunny and warm. Sometimes, I had to admit that I really missed Carlsbad. Durango wasn’t like California; we had an actual winter. And snow. And ice storms. I shuddered – I hadn’t even been in town for more than a month and a half and I was already dreading winter.

We’d just arrived at Café Nori and let ourselves inside. The owner had waved and pointed towards a corner table. As I took my cardigan off and folded it inside my purse, I sighed. “Uh oh,” Susan said. “You look pissed, what is it?” “Nothing,” I said. “Just getting used to the fact that I don’t live in California anymore.” I raised my eyebrows. “You know. Winter and all that.” I shuddered and wrapped my arms around myself. “I don’t know how I’m going to handle it. I didn’t even have closed-toed shoes until like, last week!” Susan hooted with laughter. She passed me a menu but I left it face-down on the table. I’d been starving not ten minutes ago but suddenly my appetite had completely disappeared. Besides, I knew what I’d order anyway: a California roll and a lobster king special. It was my usual order, and the staff probably could have made it for me in their sleep. But all the same, it was delicious. “Are you okay?” Susan asked, once she was finished laughing. “I mean, did something happen?”

I shook my head. “No, not really,” I lied. “I just wanted a change of scene. You know, I’d been in Carlsbad my whole life. And it’s not like I went to college – so I sort of stayed the same while all my friends grew up.” And left me when I got involved with an abusive biker, I thought grimly. Susan frowned. “Are you not happy here?” Before I could reply, she continued: “I know it’s real hard makin’ new friends and all. But you’re doing a great job. You’re so sweet and nice.” She squinted. “It’s hard to believe you don’t have a boyfriend yet! I noticed one of the interns checking you out the other day!” I rolled my eyes. “Yeah, right,” I said. “More like staring at my tattoos.” “Come on, be fair,” Susan replied. “It was Ethan. Don’t you think he’s cute? That blonde hair and blue eyes?” She sighed dramatically. “If I was about ten years younger, I’d go for him myself. He’s dreamy!” I bit my lip. “Not exactly my type,” I pointed out as diplomatically as I could. Susan laughed. “So what is your type?” I wrinkled my forehead. “Um, tall and tattooed,” I said. “Lots of black leather. Drives a motorcycle.” I winced as I realized I’d basically described Mack to a T. You’re supposed to be getting along without him, I thought with dismay. “You know, maybe I will ask Ethan out,” I said suddenly. “I dated a biker guy before and it didn’t go well.” Susan nodded wisely. “My uncle’s a biker,” she said, sipping her plastic glass of water. “And he’s kind of a jerk. He has a girlfriend, but he steps out on her all the time. And he like, always wants to party. It’s like, grow up, you’re fifty-five.” I nodded, not wanting to tell her about Mack. “My ex was a jerk,” I admitted. “But that’s over and done with. We’re broken up. No contact and everything.” Susan didn’t reply – the waiter had walked over, and she was busy holding her menu up and asking him about the daily specials. I felt a sense of dread and foreboding come over me. I still couldn’t believe I’d had the courage to leave Mack. It had been the hardest thing I’d ever done, and if I was being completely honest with myself, I regretted it sometimes. The nights were dark and lonely, and I didn’t like sleeping alone. I knew that he’d been an awful boyfriend, but he was all that I’d ever known. After all, I’d given him so much. My virginity, my teen years, some of my youth. I’d loved him so much, and that was all I’d wanted from him: to be loved in return. “So what happened?” Susan asked after the waiter left. She cringed. “I ordered you your usual,” she added quickly. “You looked really lost in thought, and I didn’t wanna disturb you.” I smiled quickly. “Yeah,” I mused. “I was just thinking about home. About Carlsbad. I don’t think I

can ever go back.” “Well, what about your folks? Are they happy you’ve settled somewhere else, or do they miss you?” She sipped her water again and fanned herself with a meaty palm. “If I were them, I’d miss you like hell,” she said. “My kid’s only in kindergarten, but I can’t imagine her moving away.” She let out a loud guffaw that embarrassed me. “I have no idea how I’m gonna cope when she goes off to college!” My smile faltered but I kept it plastered on my face. “I’m sure they do,” I said. I hadn’t talked to either of my parents in about four years. We’d gotten in a fight about Mack, of course. They’d wanted me to leave – they’d tried convincing me that it was the best thing for me. But I’d refused, and they’d said they couldn’t continue to support me when I was with someone who was so blatantly horrible to me. It had hurt at the time, but it was what I’d expected. After all, Mack had been pressuring me to cut ties with my family ever since I graduated high school. But it still stung that they didn’t want me around anymore. I remembered my mom’s words like I’d just heard them yesterday: “Anita, we love you. And as soon as you want to break up with Mack and come back to us, we’ll welcome you with open arms. But we can’t support our daughter staying in a relationship with a man like that.” She’d sounded so bitter, like I was a failure. I’d shrunk back from her words like they were poison. Mom and Dad hadn’t known much about what went on between Mack and myself. They didn’t know that he’d ever laid a hand on me. They just didn’t like him because he was a biker, and because I was their goody-twoshoes daughter from the right side of the tracks. In a way, it had made me feel slightly vindicated to ignore them. They don’t know him, I’d thought as I left their house for the last time. They don’t know that he can be a good man, a decent man who treats me well. That feeling didn’t last long. Of course, that night, the abuse started up again and I had a black eye and a fat, busted lip before morning. “Anita, why don’t you call them?” Susan asked in a gentle voice. “I’m sure they’d love to hear from you now.” She raised her eyebrows like she was a psychologist giving me much-needed advice. “You shouldn’t try to live without involving your parents in your life. They always love you, even if they’re not the best at showing that.” I pursed my lips. “It’s fine,” I said. When the waiter came with our food, I was relieved for the distraction. Susan had ordered a bowl of soup and a big platter of rolls – secretly I wondered how she could eat so much – and she dug in almost immediately. My California roll and lobster king roll looked delicious, but I wasn’t hungry. I picked up my chopsticks and broke them in half, rubbing the tips together and picking up an end piece of the roll. When the food was halfway to my mouth, I was hit with the most revolting, disgusting stench that I’d ever smelled in my whole life. It was like rotten fish, garbage, and sewage all stirred together. The

bile rose in my throat before I could force it back down and I quickly dropped the piece of sushi on the floor before covering my mouth with my hand and bolting off to the bathroom. The only good thing about the whole event was that Café Nori had single stall bathrooms, and Susan couldn’t follow me in. I puked until my throat was raw, filling the bowl with hot, sour liquid that tasted like it had come from something dead and rotting. The smell was enough to make my eyes water and tears streamed down my face as I gushed vomit into the toilet. When I was done, I washed my mouth out and patted my sweaty face with a paper towel. The pad felt hot and coarse against my skin and I closed my eyes, suddenly dizzy. Susan eyed me cautiously as I approached the table. The rotten smell was still there, threatening to turn my stomach with each passing second. “I think there’s something wrong with my food,” I said as quietly as I could manage. Café Nori was practically empty and I didn’t want the staff to hear me being rude. “It smells really horrible for some reason. I’ll just box it up and throw it away when we get back to the office.” Susan opened her mouth like she was going to reply, then closed her lips before she could get any words out. “Anita,” she said slowly, almost like she was suddenly nervous about something. “I hate to say this…but your food’s fine,” she said softly. “I can smell it from here, and it smells amazing. Want me to try a piece?” My jaw dropped and my mouth hung open. “Sure,” I managed to choke out. Susan reached down with her chopsticks and lifted a piece of lobster king roll between them. She popped it into her mouth and chewed, then smiled at me cautiously. “It’s fine,” she said. “Are you….feeling okay?” I sighed. I’d been lying to her all afternoon, but suddenly I didn’t feel like keeping up the charade any longer. “No,” I said bitterly, shaking my head. “No. I feel like shit. I just threw up the entire contents of my stomach, and I still smell that horrible smell. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.” Susan licked her lips, then set her chopsticks down and took a long swallow of water. “I hate to ask this, but is there any chance you could be pregnant?” I could feel my eyebrows flying up before I could stop them. I stared at Susan, wide-eyed and openmouthed. “No,” I lied. “No. There’s no chance at all.” ### When we got back to the office after lunch, I told Susan I was sick and that I was going home. After sending an email to my bosses, I grabbed my stuff and hightailed it out of the office before anyone

could ask any more questions. To be fair, I did look sick: I looked downright wretched. My skin was green and I couldn’t stop the waves of nausea that were now threatening to drown me in their wake. Thankfully, no one asked any questions as I darted out of the office and down the street to where I’d parked my car. Durango wasn’t like Carlsbad, that was for sure. Instead of big parking garages, there were empty lots all over the place. I hustled over to my beat-up car, an old Volvo I’d driven in high school. My stomach heaved again and I had to pause and brace myself against the roof before opening the door and climbing inside. My parents had bought me the car for my sixteenth birthday, and then I’d blown them off to go hang out with Mack. When I thought of it now, I felt shame and sadness. But there was no way I could call them, not with everything going on. After a few minutes, I felt marginally less sick so I hopped inside and drove to the nearest drug-store. As I drove, I tried to count how many weeks had passed since I’d had my last period. It was more than a few. I had stopped taking birth control before I left Mack, although there was a chance he could have tampered with it. That thought threatened to make me puke again, and I had to pull over to the side of the road and wait for the nausea to subside. Finally, I was able to pull into the parking lot of a CVS. As I picked out a pregnancy test from the shelf, my hands were shaking. My palms were sweaty and damp, and I almost dropped the damn thing a number of times before I made it to the register to pay. Thankfully, the kid working barely even looked at me as I swiped my credit card and stuffed the pink box inside my purse before anyone else had time to see me. At home, I paced nervously in the kitchen. I’d set a timer for three minutes, and it seemed to take forever. I flipped the stick over and stared at the box. I could see the fluid spreading over the tip and I bit my lip as I closed my eyes, waiting impatiently for the result. Pregnant. I groaned and closed my eyes as soon as the word appeared in the little pink box. If this was right, I was fucked.

Chapter Three Anita – Four Years Ago I woke up that morning feeling excited and nervous, like butterflies were swarming around in my stomach. I had turned eighteen two weeks ago, and today was the morning of my high school graduation. “Honey, I made pancakes,” Mom said as I slipped into the kitchen and hopped on a stool by the breakfast bar. “Your favorite, right?” I nodded. “I’m hungry,” I admitted. My stomach growled and we both laughed. It was a rare moment. Things had been tense in the house for a long time. Ever since I’d told Mom and Dad that I didn’t plan to go to a four-year school, only community college, they’d been upset with me. Of course, the real plan was for me to move in with Mack as soon as graduation was over. But they didn’t know that, at least not yet. My stomach twisted over and I tasted a sour taste in my mouth. “Here you go,” Mom said. She slid a plate of whole-wheat pancakes encrusted with blueberries towards me on the counter. “I hope you enjoy these.” She muttered something else under her breath. “And how are things, Anita?” I gulped some orange juice and wiped my mouth on the back of my hand, ignoring Mom’s stern glare. “They’re fine,” I said. “I mean, I’m happy to be graduating.” I pulled a face. “But I hate those stupid gowns. I wish I didn’t have to wear one.” Mom sighed. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime event, Anita,” she said calmly. “And soon, you’ll be in college and studying hard. Tonight is your chance to celebrate. Are your friends doing anything afterwards?” I shook my head. I had plans with Mack – we were going to sneak into the woods and get drunk. That was what we normally did on the weekends. Secretly, I thought he had a surprise for me. After all, we’d been dating for four years! But I didn’t want to pester him and ask, because I knew he got angry when I asked too many questions. “What about Melody and Karen?” Mom needled. “I’m sure Melody’s parents are throwing a big party. Doesn’t that sound fun?” I shook my head, not wanting to tell her that I’d barely talked to Melody or Karen all year. Ever since I’d started going steady with Mack, he’d told me that he didn’t really like me blowing him off for girls from school. I’d always thought that was kind of controlling, but it seemed to make him happy when I listened to him and ignored my former best friends. It hurt to think about sometimes, but after all, I had Mack. He was all I needed. We were so in love – I couldn’t wait to finally begin our adult lives together! I grinned whenever I thought of it. We’d get a cute little apartment, and I’d fix it up, and Mack could help me with the harder stuff. I thought of us cocooned in our little love nest, happy

and oblivious to the rest of the world. “Anita, what’s wrong? You’re daydreaming,” Mom scolded. “Your pancakes are getting cold. Don’t you want them?” “Yeah,” I lied. I cut a small piece and pushed it around on the plate with the tines of my fork, sopping up all of the syrup that Mom had poured over the pancakes. She kept her eyes trained on me. “This is good,” I said after taking the bite. It was good; Mom was a good cook. But I was still too nervous. “Anita, spill,” Mom said. She put her hands on her hips and stared at me. “I know you well enough to know when you’re lying to me. Haven’t you thought of how your lying affects me, too?” I bit my lip. “Mom, I’m moving in with Mack,” I said. The words tumbled out of my mouth and I cringed. I hadn’t even had a chance to think about them yet, and that wasn’t how I’d wanted to tell her. I’d wanted the speech to be eloquent, firm, me living on my own and that was that. Mom frowned. “Anita,” she said slowly. “Do you really think that’s a good idea?” She bit her lower lip. “Don’t you think that you should, you know, maybe cool it between the two of you for a while? You’ll be going to community college soon, and you’ll need to focus on your studies.” She let out a little laugh that I recognized as one of her nervous tics. “Don’t you think so? I mean, what can Mack possibly give you at this point? Is he even working?” “Mom, god,” I sighed in exasperation, pushing the plate of pancakes away from me. “He’s a mechanic. You know that. And he’s in a motorcycle club.” Mom closed her eyes briefly. “Yes, I know,” she said. Her voice was strained and tense. “But Anita, do you really think it’s wise to become involved with someone like that? At this time in your life? We just want what’s best for you, honey.” “I have to go,” I said, hopping down from the breakfast bar and swinging my backpack over my shoulder. “I’m supposed to meet Mack and I don’t wanna be late.” Mom didn’t say anything as I darted out of the house. Instead, she watched me go with a sad look on her face. I felt guilty, like something was tugging at my heartstrings, but the guilt wasn’t enough to make me turn around and go back in. I was eighteen. I was an adult now, finally. And there wasn’t anything Mom could do to make me stop wanting to be with Mack. Mack met me on the outskirts of town. “Hey,” he said shortly. “You’re late. Where the fuck were you?” I rolled my eyes. “You’re so moody these days,” I teased. “I was having breakfast with my mom.” “What’s that nosy cunt want now?” I always had an odd mix of feelings when Mack spoke about my mother, a combination of guilt and

wanting to laugh uncontrollably. My parents had never liked Mack, and they’d never made a secret of it. But that didn’t change anything. “She’s trying to make me feel shitty about moving in with you,” I said as I sidled up to Mack and wrapped an arm around his bulky waist. He lit two cigarettes in his mouth and passed one to me. Wordlessly, I took it and inhaled. I didn’t even know when I’d started smoking – sometime after being with Mack. But now I loved cigarettes. They calmed me down and perked me up exactly when I needed it. “Well, she’s a bitch, and she’s fuckin’ nosy,” Mack said. He spat on the ground. “We goin’ for a ride or what?” “I have to be at school by eleven,” I said in a small voice. “It’s graduation rehearsal.” Mack laughed. “That’s retarded,” he said. He stared at me. “They fuckin’ want you to practice? How hard is it to walk in a goddamned line?” I swallowed. “It’s mandatory,” I said in the same small voice. “If you skip, they don’t let you walk.” “That’s fuckin’ bullshit,” Mack said. “You meeting a guy?” He threw his cigarette butt on the ground and crushed it with the heel of his motorcycle boot. “You fuckin’ some jock asshole, some football player behind my back?” “No, no,” I said quickly, holding up my hands. “Mack, it was just a joke. Relax!” Mack growled. “Don’t fuckin’ tell me what to do, bitch,” he said in a nasty voice. Tears welled up in my eyes and I blinked. There was a lump forming in my throat and I stared at the ground so I wouldn’t start to cry in front of the man I loved. “Mack,” I said slowly. “That hurt my feelings.” I looked up at him, expecting an apology. I didn’t know what to do – after all, we’d been together for years. We loved each other! Just because he was in a bad mood didn’t mean anything, right? “Fuck your feelings,” Mack said. “I don’t have to waste my time on a no-tit high school baby who thinks being a slut with some jock is going to do her any favors.” He started to climb on the back of his motorcycle and I stared, rooted to the ground. He’s not actually going to leave me, I thought. Desperation welled up inside my stomach and before I knew what I was doing, I stepped forward and wrapped my hands around his leather-clad muscular arm. “Mack, please,” I begged. “Please don’t go! I wasn’t doing anything! I wasn’t doing anything at all! I promise, I’ve never slept with anyone but you!”

He turned to me and stared down. “You fuckin’ sure? Do I have to fuckin’ check your panties?” I shook my head frantically, tears spilling down my cheeks. My heart was pounding in my chest and I felt like I couldn’t breathe. “No, no, god no,” I said. “I promise! I’ve never slept with anyone else!” Mack’s expression softened. “Good,” he said. “Don’t let me catch you fuckin’ around with any jocks, Anita. I’ll see you tonight.” Before I had a chance to reply, he took off. The rest of the day didn’t go so well. I was late to rehearsal, and found it just as boring as Mack had predicted it would be. This is stupid, he was right, I thought as I walked slowly in formation with the rest of my graduating class. Plus, I was lonely. Ever since I stopped talking to Melody and Karen, I didn’t really have any friends at school. They’d spread rumors about me and now people stared at me all the time. I didn’t really care about what anyone was saying behind my back, but it hurt all the same. Finally, when it came time to march that night for real, I was so bored that I thought I’d fall asleep. Wearily, I walked down the aisle with some guy on the other side of me that I’d never seen. Instinctively, it made me nervous – I knew Mack wouldn’t like me walking next to a guy. But when I’d tried to protest, the graduation coordinator had laughed in my face and told me the rules were rules for a reason. It didn’t make any sense – graduation was already a stupid, outdated ritual. But I didn’t push back. I knew Mom and Dad would be in the audience, and I didn’t want to make them any angrier than they already were. I hadn’t heard from Mom all day. I figured that she’d told Dad about what I’d said, and I was dreading his response. But I realized confidently that even if they tried to prohibit me from leaving, I’d be able to say no. I was eighteen, a legal adult, and I had a boyfriend who loved me. Mack was my future. I wished more than anything that my parents would realize that, and embrace him as a sonin-law, but I didn’t see that day coming any time soon. When the principal called my name, I walked across the stage blushing hard. There was only a smattering of applause – kids were clapping for their friends, and I realized morosely I wasn’t really anyone’s “friend.” I was just an acquaintance, someone they’d gone to school with. I didn’t even think anyone would add me on Facebook when college started. The principal handed me my diploma and patted me on the back, then I walked to my seat and sat down heavily. I hadn’t seen Mack in the audience. He’d promised me that he was going to come, but I was starting to panic and worry that he’d decided to break up with me after all. I started cursing myself for being so stupid. Why had I picked that fight with him earlier? Why hadn’t I been quicker to apologize? I’m such a moron, I thought as the tears started to come back. I don’t deserve a boyfriend like Mack. I deserve to be alone for the rest of my life, a fucking spinster. The rest of the ceremony dragged. Finally, it was over. I wanted to run away and call Mack as soon as I could, but my parents found me before I could escape. Mom pulled me into a tight hug. I could tell

that she’d been crying. “Honey, your mother told me all about your decision to move out,” Dad said. I bit my lip, expecting a verbal assault. Instead, he smiled sadly. “And I think you’re right. You’re eighteen now, an adult. It’s time you try things on your own instead of relying on us any longer. I’m proud of you, and I know you’ll do the right thing.” An unexpected feeling of sadness came over me and I hugged Dad tightly. I couldn’t remember the last time he’d been so nice to me – it definitely hadn’t happened in recent memory, that was for sure. Growing up, I’d always been closer to Mom than Dad. But I was surprised at the feelings of regret that were bubbling up inside of me. I pulled away. Dad cleared his throat, his cheeks slightly flushed. It was the only time I’d ever seen him anything less than completely stoic. “Anita, we’re proud of you,” Dad said again. He reached into his jacket and pulled out an envelope. “This is for you. We want you to use it for school, but it’s your money – you can do with it as you like.” I gasped as I opened the envelope. Inside was a check for five thousand dollars. I stared at it for a few seconds, feeling numb. “Dad, are you sure? This is a lot of money,” I hissed. My parents weren’t wealthy, and I couldn’t imagine them sparing this kind of money, just for me. After all, I was nothing. I was just a dumb kid who’d barely graduated from high school. Mom nodded. “Yes, honey. That’s for you,” she said. I noticed that her smile was stretched tightly across her face – she was obviously having a lot of trouble with the whole concept of me moving out. For a second, the urge to throw myself in her arms and have her stroke my hair came over me. I felt homesick and I hadn’t even left home yet. But when I thought of Mack, the urge disappeared and I smiled for real. “Thanks Mom, thanks Dad,” I said sincerely, tucking the envelope inside my purse. Part of me expected them to invite me out to dinner, and I was surprised when Dad said that he had to get home. “There’s a James Bond movie on that your father wants to watch,” Mom stage-whispered to me as she leaned in for another brief hug. “We’ll talk to you soon.” She swallowed hard and cleared her throat. “Are you going out with Mack?” I nodded. “Yeah,” I said. Again, I felt surprisingly guilty and I couldn’t explain why. “I’ll be home tomorrow sometime, to get my stuff.” Mom held me by both shoulders and looked into my brown eyes. All my life, people had called us

sisters but I’d never really understood the resemblance until now. We both had big round eyes, heartshaped faces, and masses of brown hair. The only differences were the slight wrinkles forming by the corners of her mouth and her eyes. It made me sad to see that she’d aged. Stop thinking like that, I ordered myself. Don’t be such a freaking weirdo. She’s your mother. Of course she’s older than you. I had pulled myself together by the time Mom and Dad walked off toward their car. It felt strange to think that I wasn’t going home with them, that perhaps aside from the occasional visit, I wouldn’t ever go home with them again. But all thoughts of my parents were forgotten as Mack walked up to me, grinning a cocky smile. “Babe,” Mack said. “C’mon. Let’s go.” I burst out laughing. He looked so different from earlier! He looked so happy and relaxed. “I’m so glad to see you,” I said, walking up and throwing my arms around him. As always, his leather jacket creaked from our shared weight. As his lips met mine, I shuddered. Mack slipped his tongue in my mouth and wrapped his arms around my waist, sliding them down to my ass and squeezing hard. A jolt of arousal shot through me. “Let’s go,” I whispered into Mack’s ear, as soon as we pulled away from each other. “I can’t wait to be alone with you.” Mack and I climbed on his bike and he drove us out of town, all the way to the edge of the woods. Our ritual was driving out here, then bringing a blanket and some cheap wine into the woods. I loved being alone with him – it made me feel mature and safe. Mack’s big frame was enough to protect us from any danger that came our way. I knew that no matter what, he’d always keep me safe. Mack’s motorcycle roared around the sharp curves and turns of the Carlsbad hills. When we got to the outskirts of the forest, he slowed down and we stowed his bike. Then he handed me a big basket. “Carry this,” Mack said. “I’ll lead the way.” He clicked on a flashlight and started plowing into the woods. The basket was heavy and I was still wearing my heels from the graduation ceremony – stupidly, I hadn’t thought far enough in advance to wear other shoes. I stumbled and almost fell multiple times, but Mack didn’t slow his pace. He kept walking and I practically had to run to keep up as I scrambled along in his wake. “Here,” Mack said. He gestured for me to set the basket down on the ground, When I had, he opened it up and pulled out the familiar red-checked blanket. “Is this a special night?” I glanced into the basket, half-hoping that there would be a surprise inside. Instead, I saw everything that we normally brought: two bottles of Boone’s Farm Apple wine, plastic cups, and a baggie containing marijuana. I didn’t like to smoke, but Mack didn’t like to have sex with me unless he was stoned. He said it ruined the experience otherwise. Secretly, I was always hoping that we could do it sober. But I’d spent enough time with Mack to know that his habits died hard. There was no way he’d change, even with time. He’d always loved smoking pot, and the one time I

asked him not to, he’d gotten really angry with me. Mack glanced up at me. “Why would this be a special night?” “Because I graduated today,” I said meekly. “And because I thought we could celebrate. You know, us moving in together and all that. Aren’t you happy?” Mack narrowed his eyes. He dropped the blanket on the ground in a pile of folds and I swallowed. An icy, strange feeling came over my stomach until I was feeling just as anxious as I had that morning. “Why the fuck would we celebrate you graduating from some dumb school?” Mack sneered. “Why the fuck would we do that when we could concentrate on gettin’ drunk and fucking?” He stepped towards me and the sound of menace in his voice made me shiver. As he balled up one of his hands into a fist and swung it behind his back, I stumbled backward. But my heel caught on a twig and I fell over, landing hard on my ass. The ground was littered with sharp rocks and I felt one of them pierce my thigh. Howling in pain, I wrapped my hands around my leg and leaned over my lap. “What the fuck are you crying about, bitch?” Mack yelled. He leaned down over me and suddenly, there was a sharp, explosive pain in my jaw. For a moment, it was so intense that it didn’t even register as pain. I saw stars and felt the air whoosh out of my lungs as I fell to the ground.

Chapter Four Dennis – Present Day When Mack called me into the headquarters, I knew it was serious. I’d been riding with the Iron Titans for nine years, since I was an eighteen-year-old kid. And all that time, Mack hadn’t paid a ton of attention to me. He was more the type to lash out and call you a fuckup rather than praise you. But still, I knew I’d been doing a good job. After all, I hadn’t been kicked out of the MC or killed yet. And that’s about the only way I can fuckin’ tell things are going my way, I thought with a smirk as I pulled my bike up in front of headquarters and parked on the street. Life in Carlsbad, California was pretty fuckin’ sweet. I hadn’t grown up around here; I’d been in the foster care system, bounced around from one grime-infested house to the next until I finally became legal in the eyes of the state. I hadn’t even finished high school; I’d dropped out before I finished the eleventh grade. Algebra II had kicked my ass – years later, I was still laughing about how badly I’d fucked it all up. If I had parents at one point, I don’t remember ‘em. My first memories are in kindergarten, of some other little kid fucker making fun of me because I was wearing clothes with holes in them. That was the day I’d gotten in my first fight. There had been a lot more fights after that, but at least that was the day everyone learned not to fuck with Dennis Collins. For a long time, I’d really wanted to find my parents. But Collins is about the most fuckin’ common last name on earth, or at least in California. There were 16 pages of Collinses in the phone book. I knew that finding my real parents would be damn near impossible. Hell, maybe they didn’t want to be found. If I were them, I’d probably want to hide, too. They couldn’t know what kind of an asshole they’d produced. The second foster family that took me in had a kid named Ken. He was perfect, just like a little fuckin’ Ken doll. He was blonde and athletic, with big muscles and a shit-eating grin. He used to love kicking the shit out of me, telling me that I wasn’t ever good enough because I was adopted. “No one loves you enough to adopt you,” he’d sneer at me in the backyard after school. I kicked his ass more than one time, which led to me spending the night alone in the basement with no dinner. Of course, as soon as his parents showed up, he’d cry every single fuckin’ time and act like I’d just attacked him. They never even heard my side of the story – I was pushed downstairs before I had a chance to utter a single word. I went through six more foster families before high school, when I finally wound up on a farm outside of Carlsbad, California that grew grapes for wine. They’d obviously picked me because I looked tough, like I could stand up to all kinds of physical labor. I hated living there, but I got over it. The old people weren’t so bad, and the other kids left me alone because they were all Mexican. Sure, they hated me and called me a piece of shit. But all I had to do was growl in their general direction and they’d go running like mice.

It was then I decided to stay in Carlsbad. I’d made some friends at the local junk shop who were mechanics, and they got to teaching me some shit whenever I had free time. A mechanic could make a good living. I was determined not to be poor for the rest of my life. I never gave a fuck about having my own family – the foster families I’d stayed with weren’t exactly the models for love and devotion – but I wanted to make my own life. I wanted to be bulletproof, I wanted to make sure that I’d never end up in the same damn dilemma that my parents had: having a kid but not wanting one. I probably seemed pretty bitter about all of it. The truth was, I wasn’t really bitter. Just afraid, deep down, of ending up like my worst nightmares. When I found the Iron Titans, it was like I’d found God. It was what they call a downright religious experience. I’d always been searching for a group who looked out for their own, and I was relieved to finally find a bunch of men who understood what was really important in life: sticking together and giving a big middle finger to the capitalist Man who ruled our society. California was really the only place I ever could have found those guys, and I thank my lucky stars that the foster home happened to be right there. They say you don’t know home until you leave it. Well, I think that’s bullshit. I knew Carlsbad was home to me as soon as I got there. I had to repeat eighth grade so I turned eighteen in the middle of my junior year. All it took was one bad fight with the counselor and then I walked outta that school for good. My foster parents were real happy about it – said that now I could put in an extra hour or two on the farm every day. I wasn’t thrilled about that, but they started paying me and I saved up wages. In two months, I had about two thousand dollars. It was enough for me to move out on my own, into a shitty studio apartment on the outskirts of the city. That was when I met Mack. Mack Dawson was the leader of the Iron Titans, one of the most feared MCs around the state. They pushed drugs – mostly heroin, but blow and molly, too – and sold weapons to felons. That kinda shit. I knew it was bad, but I couldn’t wait to dip my foot in the waters anyway. Mack told me the first night I met him that he was looking for a guy like me, and I knew right away that I was just the man for the job. I started out as a prospect. I bought a cheap American Lifan bike for about $600, then fixed it up with every spare moment that I had. Mack had me doing ten, sometimes twenty runs per week, all the way up to Escondido and back. It was hell, but I did it. I wanted to prove to Mack that I was a good investment in the club, that I was the right kind of guy. Mack didn’t like that I drove a Chink-made bike, but he didn’t bitch about it. Said he’d give me six months to save up enough for a Harley. If I could do that and push $10,000 worth of heroin, I was in the club. Instead of six months, it only took me three.

My initiation party into the Iron Titans was one of the best nights of my life. Another guy in the club, Rocko, was friends with all these hookers and porn stars. We had one hell of a party – I drank champagne from the pussy of the hottest chicks I’d ever seen, and they were all over me like I was some kind of stud. After years of no one paying attention to me, it felt like insanity. But I loved it. I got high on life that night. It was this crazy, powerful surge of adrenaline that made me feel like a god. I knew right then and there that I could never go back to normal life, ever again. The guys were like a family to me. Hell, they were a family. Mack was hooked up with this sweet little piece named Anita – they were high school sweethearts – and she treated the guys in the club real well. Every time we got back from a long ride, she’d have dinner cooked for all of us. She never bothered us, either – as soon as the men started talking, Mack would smack her on the tight little ass and she’d skitter right out of the room. She even cleaned up after us – the dishes were always done, there was always fresh coffee brewing in the clubhouse. And she never had a word to say, except a smile for Mack. She wouldn’t look the rest of us in the eyes, which I thought was real weird at first, but after a while it just seemed normal, like everything else that went on in the Iron Titans club. After Mack took a chance on me and patched me into the MC, we didn’t talk as much. I had my own duties: I was in charge of a big Escondido heroin ring, and it kept me busy. Time passed, and before I knew it, I’d been in the club for years. I’d finally done it. I’d kicked the ass of poverty and everyone who said that I couldn’t make it on my own. And I’d never felt so proud. So when Mack called me up one morning and told me to come in for a chat, I was a little spooked. He didn’t normally socialize with members much unless we were on a run. I figured that maybe he just wanted to blow off some steam, or ask about the heroin ring. It was going well, but there was a real dangerous batch of H flying around that was cut with too much fentanyl. People were dying left and right. Part of me wondered if he was gonna try to pin it on me. When I got to the clubhouse, Mack was sitting at the bar, sippin’ a cold one. He looked as tough as ever, and he jerked his head to the side by way of greeting as son as we made eye contact. I walked over and grabbed a beer, toasting Mack respectfully before cracking it open and pouring it down my throat. “Dennis, how’re things?” Mack stared at me with a deep gaze, his eyes searching my whole body. He had the gaze of a hawk, and I could tell immediately that something was wrong. There was something about his posture that made him look like a coiled snake, ready to strike. “Pretty fuckin’ good,” I said casually, taking another gulp of brew. “What’s the deal, man? Why’d you call me in?” Mack snorted. “Real direct, huh?” He shook his head. “I’ve got a fuckin’ problem, Dennis. And it’s got to do with the biggest cunt around.” I glanced at him with a slight frown. “If you’re still pissed about that— ”

Mack held up his hand and growled at me. “Did I fuckin’ say to ask me yet?” He glared at me as he knocked back the rest of his beer and tossed the bottle to the side. “Shut the fuck up until your President’s done talking.” I nodded my head. “Anita run off,” he said, reaching over the counter for a fresh beer. “She fuckin’ left me over some dumb fight we had.” “What?” I stared, openmouthed. I couldn’t believe it – it was like Mack had told me that the sun and the moon orbited the Earth, instead of the other way around. I couldn’t imagine Anita leaving. She was a fixture, almost like a piece of furniture. Mack slammed the bottle down on the counter so hard that beer splashed over the rim. “She fuckin’ left,” he repeated, staring at me with dead eyes. “She’s a fucking little cunt, and I want her punished.” “So you want me to go take care of her?” Mack’s lips curled into an evil grin. “I want you to bring her back here, so I can show her who her lord and master is,” he said, his fingers curling into a tight fist. “I want to fuckin’ fuck that bitch up so hard she won’t be able to tell up from down.” He laughed bitterly. “She’s gonna be so fuckin’ sore when I’m done with her that she won’t be able to walk straight.” I couldn’t tell you why, but at that moment, my stomach turned to ice. “Did you have a fight?” “Shut the fuck up, Collins,” Mack said. “Ain’t none of your fuckin’ business! She done run off, I told you! You don’t need to know anything else!” I nodded. “And where is she?” “The little cunt went to Colorado,” Mack said with a sneer. “Durango. Some shit town, some small place.” He shook his head. “It’s a fuckin’ long ride from here, but I need you to go get her and bring her back.” He raised his eyebrows. “And don’t hurt her none, either. You save that shit for me, you understand?” That was it. I had to say yes. There was no other way around it – Mack’s word was the law, and if I said no, I’d be out on my ass faster than Mack could rip the Titans patch off my vest. “Durango, Colorado,” I repeated. “Got it.”

Chapter Five Dennis The next morning, I got up real early and took one of the club cars out for a ride. It was a twelve-hour car trip from Carlsbad to Durango, and I didn’t wanna be on a bike for that long. Plus, I didn’t want that bitch Anita on the back of a bike; that would give her opportunities to jump off the whole damn day. Not that I thought she’d do it. But the way Mack had talked about their split made me realize that something was going seriously fucking haywire between the two of them. I’d never really talked to Anita. Her last name was something generic – McDodson or MacPherson or something like that – and even though she was real pretty, like I’ve said before, she was meek as hell. She never said a word to any of the Iron Titans aside from “excuse me” if we bumped into her on purpose, which some of the assholes did all the time because they wanted to see her pretty little face blush. But we couldn’t look too long – there was one Iron Titan, a guy named Eric who’d let his eyes hang all over Anita like fur on a dog. He was gone the next day. No one ever found out where he went, and Mack’s smile was one shade smugger for the next couple weeks. It was like that, see. It was like that all the fuckin’ time. When I got to Durango, I rented a room in a cheap motel, right in the middle of the town. The whole damn town was like that: cheap, cheap, cheap. The room only cost me sixty bucks a night, and it had air conditioning and color TV. I guess most people would scoff at that nowadays. Luxury hotels with their heated indoor swimming pools and turn-down service with cute little chocolates. But I could tell right away that Durango wasn’t that kind of place. It was a little wild, a little rustic, a lot small. The people who lived here had obviously lived here for years and years. That Anita bitch should stick out like a sore thumb. I was exhausted from the drive, but I knew that nothing could quench my thirst better than a beer. Hell, maybe even some local pussy. I’d seen a few cute girls walkin’ around with short-shorts on and belly shirts. They looked young and inexperienced, which is just the way I like girls. I like being with girls I can train: how to suck my dick, how to take my cock like a pro. That turned me on. Just thinking about it was getting me hard. But then a vision of Mack’s stern face popped into my mind and I knew that I couldn’t waste any time fucking around, not right now. One beer, I decided. One beer, and then I’ll go hunt for this bitch Anita. As luck would have it, there was a bar right underneath the hotel. It wasn’t some fancy place, but one of those Western bars, with a big bucking mechanical bronco and smudged bottles of whiskey decorating the bar. It was empty, too. When I walked in, only a few grizzled locals were perched on stools, wetting their whistles with Colorado’s finest. I grinned. I loved Carlsbad, but some part of me liked small, anonymous towns like this. I felt like I could really lose myself here in Durango, or maybe lose myself and then find somethin’ better. Stop thinkin’ like that, Dennis, I told myself as I slid up to the bar and hopped onto a torn Naugahyde

stool. You ain’t stayin’ here for long. Mack told you to bring her back within the week. So you don’t get too comfortable in this shit town. The bartender was busty and sun-browned. She smiled flirtatiously at me. “Honey, what can I get you? You don’t look like you’re from around here,” she added. “You want some whiskey?” “Straight up,” I said, sliding a five dollar bill across the counter towards her. “And thank you.” She winked at me, then passed me a smudged shot glass brimming with liquid fire. Picking it up, I sniffed, then threw my head back and knocked it all down. I figured now would be a good time to ask about locals. Hell, maybe Anita came into this place once in a while! I realized that aside from her behavior around the Iron Titans, I barely knew anything about this bitch. My lips curled into a smile at the realization. All the better to bring her back home, I thought smugly. All the better if I don’t have to listen to her whining and screaming the whole damn time. “So,” I said casually. “You ever see a real pretty girl in here? Brown hair, long legs? Cute smile?” The woman laughed. “Honey, you just described half my locals,” she said with a smile. “What else, does she wear cowboy boots, too?” I frowned and thought hard. I hadn’t looked at Anita too close before – didn’t wanna risk getting my ass beat by the boss – but that sounded like something she’d wear. I closed my eyes and tried to picture her now. The details were blurry, fuzzy at best, but I saw a solid image start to form behind my eyes. “No,” I said slowly. “Black high-heel sandals. With a platform. She’s on the shorter side.” “Well I’ll be damned,” the woman said. She whistled and pointed out the window. “That your girl?” I spun around on the stool so fast my head was spinning. There she was, walking down the middle of Main St, pleased as punch. Anita. Anita the cheating bitch, Anita the liar who I had to bring home. She was swinging her little hips from side to side and there was a big pair of sunglasses perched on that little, upturned nose. Sure enough, she was wearing a tight white t-shirt, a denim miniskirt, and black high-heeled sandals with straps that crisscrossed over those long, long legs. “That’s her,” I said. “You know her?” “Oh, Anita? Sure I do,” the woman said. She poured me another generous three fingers of whiskey. “She’s a real doll. Just real sweet. Her family done raised her right.” The fuck she is, I thought. She’s a fucking cunt and she’s gonna get the shit beaten out of her when I get her home, I thought. But instead, I smiled. “I’m sure she is,” I said with a wolfish grin. “How much do I owe ya?”

Five minutes later, I ducked out from the bar and into the fresh, dry sunshine of Main St. The air was dusty and I could tell I was real high up in the mountains. Anita was walking ahead of me, real slow, almost like she was teasing me. She had long, shiny brown hair tucked into a loose braid and she moved differently than I’d seen her move around the Titans. For one thing, she seemed much more relaxed. Around the Titans, she’d always seemed a little controlled, a little robotic. I hadn’t noticed it at the time – none of us had – but here, I could tell she was moving much more freely than she had before. Not for long, bitch, I thought as I watched her peer over to look in the window of a local shop. You better enjoy your last taste of freedom. Because you’re going back to Mack and he is not gonna be happy that you decided to leave. Anita trailed ahead on the sidewalk. She was the perfect victim to watch – she never even turned around. Most people would have been able to sense they were being watched, but not her. She poked her head in two or three local shops, finally buying a small bouquet of flowers and carrying them over to a car that looked like it had seen better days. Triumphantly, I recognized the car as one belonging to the Iron Titans and a shiver went through my body. I hadn’t known that she’d stolen a car – for some reason, Mack hadn’t told me. A smile formed on my lips as she climbed behind the wheel and slowly drove out of sight. They must have just had a real bad fight, I thought as I watched the taillights disappear. He probably called her a liar or a bitch or something, and she got real scared and took off. You can’t hit a woman now – they all leave. But she’s been with him for so long, I bet she really loves him. I grinned to myself. I was beginning to think of myself as almost a matchmaker type. Here I was, doing this errand for my boss. And maybe she wanted to get caught: if she hadn’t, she woulda changed her name or her hair or something else. Y’know, something to throw me off the trail. But she hadn’t, and here I was. Eventually, I loped back to my car and climbed behind the wheel. My ass was real sore from twelve hours on the road, but I knew that I had to work fast. Durango was a small town – there weren’t many places where she could’ve gone. Finally, I spotted her car just on the edge of town, parked beside a rundown little cottage. The windows were open and the curtains were fluttering in the breeze. I parked on the street and watched like a hawk. Sure enough, I saw her prancing around in the kitchen not two minutes later. She’d put the flowers on a vase by the windowsill, and she looked like she was pacing back and forth on the floor. There was a serious expression on her face and her hands were wrapped around that slim belly of hers. “Why so serious, Anita?” I asked softly as I watched her pace back and forth. She didn’t even look up as I continued to stare, feeling emboldened. “You thinkin’ about that fight you had with Mack? You worried about some other girl movin’ in and takin’ your place now?” I leaned out of the driver’s side window and spat on the ground. “You better worry, bitch,” I added softly. “You’re goin’ home soon. And Mack is not gonna be happy to see you.”

Chapter Six Anita After the shock of the pregnancy test, I passed the next couple of days in a fog. I’d never imagined getting pregnant. Not that it wasn’t something I hadn’t worried about— I’d always kept as close of an eye on my birth control pills as I possibly could. Mack always used to threaten me with the idea of kids. It sounds sick, I know. It makes me sound like a real bitch of a woman. After all, what kind of a woman wouldn’t want to have her boyfriend’s child? What kind of a woman wouldn’t have to have a baby with the man she’d been dating for seven years? Me, that was who. I couldn’t figure out what had happened for the life of me. My birth control never left my purse, and I always, always took it on time. But after I started feeling nervous enough, I pulled out my computer and did some hunting online. As soon as I found a forum with instructions for making birth control pills inactive, my heart sank. Turns out, all you have to do is stick them in the freezer for an hour or the microwave for a few minutes and they’re just like sugar pills. And even though I’d been careful, Mack still would have had a chance to do that. I didn’t doubt that he was smart enough— this wasn’t rocket science. Google “ways to make birth control pills ineffective” and you’ll get more results than you ever wanted to see Anyway, Mack always used to hold the idea of kids over my head. At first, when we were younger, he said he didn’t want any. But since I graduated high school, he used to tell me that he’d love to keep me barefoot and pregnant all the time, around the clock. “You’re gonna have so many fuckin’ kids,” Mack would sneer as he knocked back the umpteenth bottle of beer that evening. “You ain’t gonna be skinny ever again. There’s gonna be rugrats all over this damn house.” And I’d cringe and he’d kick something or throw something at me and then all rational thoughts would be over until morning. Now, it was enough to make me sick. Every time I thought of Mack, every time I thought of what we’d been through, I couldn’t believe that I’d stayed for so long. He’d abused me worse than anyone on earth ever could have, and I’d eaten it up with a silver spoon. I knew it was the worst thing to do, but I wanted a drink more than I’d ever wanted one in my whole life. So I walked downtown, into this little cowboy bar below the local motel. It was the kind of place I’d stopped by once or twice before, because it was never crowded and the bartender, Amy, was real friendly. She grinned at me as I let myself inside and went to a stool. “Can I get you anything, sugar?”

I glanced down at my stomach. “Just water, for now,” I said, feeling the courage seep out of my veins with each passing second. “Thanks, Amy.” “No problem, sugar,” Amy said. She passed me a glass of ice water and I sipped it thoughtfully, wishing that it was gin and tonic instead of pure spring water from the Rocky Mountains. The door jangled open and I watched as a rugged, muscular guy stepped into the bar. My breath caught in my throat – he was one of the most gorgeous men I’d seen recently. He was just my type, too: leather jacket, a little scruff on his chin, blonde hair pushed back off his forehead. Bright green eyes, a little hard, a little sexy. I shivered as I watched the guy belly up to the bar. He glanced at me twice. The first time was real quick, just like he was noticing who I was. The second time was longer, and made me blush to the roots of my hair. He looked me up and down, real slow, his eyes patting me down to a tenth of an inch. He checked out the seams of my clothing, my messy hair, even my purse hanging on the back of a barstool. “Hey there,” the man said. “Can I get you a drink?” The words stuck in my throat and I swallowed hard. “I’m just goin’ with water for now,” I said softly. He had a strange accent – definitely American, but sort of all over, like he’d never had a home. “Are you new in town?” The man snorted. Amy brought him two fingers worth of whiskey and he knocked back the fiery liquid in one gulp, not even flinching. He slammed the glass down on the bar and then turned to face me. Up close, his eyes were like liquid pools of peridot. I tried to remember having seen a more handsome man in my life, and failed completely. “Yeah, I’m new in town,” the man said gruffly. He held out his hand. I hesitated for a moment – there was still a touch of the fear in me, some kind of worry that Mack would appear, screaming that I touched another man. What the hell, I thought. Mack’s not here. You’re safe. I placed my hand in his and we shook. Immediately, the touch was electric. I let out a small gasp as our eyes met. The man grinned at me and winked. I felt a sensuous pull come over me, the kind of feeling I used to feel back when I was in high school and Mack and I were driving out to the woods. It had been so long since I felt that pure, unadulterated desire. Tears welled up in my eyes. “I’m Anita,” I said softly. “I’ve only been here for about a month, myself.” “Dennis,” the man replied. He showed a hint of his teeth when he grinned at me. “And I’m only in town for a few days.” There was something about him that intrigued me, even though I know I should have taken off running in the other direction. He was exactly the kind of man that I’d always found myself attracted to: dangerous, tattooed, and covered in leather from head to toe. I sighed as I realized he was probably

just a different version of Mack, in Colorado and not Cali. But then, there was something different about him, too. A kind of hardened surface, like he didn’t give a shit about anyone or anything. Maybe this one’s too removed to be abusive, I thought. Maybe he’s not that type. Still, I didn’t like thinking about anyone aside from Mack. I grabbed my purse and slung it over my shoulder, hightailing for the exit before another word could pass between us. The rest of the day, I stayed at home. I put something on the TV and heated up leftovers. I couldn’t even tell you what I ate or watched – that was the kind of murky haze I was wading through. Part of me wanted to skip town. Part of me wanted to have the baby, and adopt it out. The thought of a tiny little Mack growing inside of me was more than I could handle. Of course, it wasn’t the baby’s fault that his daddy was a Grade-A asshole. But dealing with my ex’s seed growing inside of me was more than I could handle. I barely slept that night. I kept thinking of everything that had happened through the years. All of the abuse, all of the anxiety. All of the stress and worry and pain that I’d gone through. Some of the things Mack had done to me were so bad that I didn’t even want to think about them, and yet they were the very first things that came bubbling up towards the surface. It was like I was a hostage in my own body, like I couldn’t escape from having these horrid thoughts. The next morning, I was exhausted. I called out of work – by now, I figured Susan had told the rest of the office that I was pregnant – and decided to have a lazy day in bed. I lied around, trying to sleep for hours. But by mid-morning, there was no way I would be able to sleep. I crawled out of bed and pulled on a pair of ripped up jeans and a black t-shirt. To my dismay, the snap on my jeans was already tight. I had to suck in and hop up and down just to get the zipper pulled all the way up. I got in my car and drove around aimlessly. That’s when I saw him – Dennis, that guy from the bar yesterday. I was stopped at an intersection, watching as he walked down Main St. He turned the corner, and finally walked into the big library at the end of the street. I bit my lip. I wanted to follow him. Despite the aura of danger that hung around him, I couldn’t deny that he was exactly my type. And while I wasn’t sure what I wanted, I knew that I wanted to at least talk to him for a few more minutes. It couldn’t hurt, could it? I parked my car and cruised into a parking space at the library. Dennis had hopped up the steps, crushed a cigarette under his heel, and then disappeared inside. After a brief check in the rearview mirror and an application of lip gloss, I locked my car and grabbed my purse, sauntering inside the library like it was no one’s business. I’m embarrassed to admit it was my first time in there. I’m not really all that big on reading. But as soon as I stepped inside, I saw a big rack of DVDs and VHSs. I grinned. That would be a great way to distract myself from all of this shit going on. I loved movies – I loved losing myself in stories about people who had it better (or worse) than I did. I’d always enjoyed that. Whenever Mack and I got in a fight and things got rough, I’d always go to the movies for a few hours and calm down. I shuddered, remembering how it felt to sit in those cold, dark theaters by myself, munching popcorn and icing

whatever new injury I had with a giant-sized cup of soda. I’d gone to that theater with a fat lip and a black eye so many times that the staff recognized me. Definitely not something I’m proud of. Dennis saw me almost immediately, but he didn’t come over. Instead, we stared at each other as I pretended to look over the DVDs on the rack. I picked up a Western and turned the cover over to read the back without even looking at the front. My senses were tingling and suddenly, all I could think about was Dennis. I wondered what it would be like to date a guy who didn’t hit me. I wondered what it would be like to be with someone who didn’t enjoy hurting me, who never threatened to rape me and beat me and leave me dead by the side of the road for the buzzards to eat. “See anything you like?” Dennis’ voice was a low growl that sent a chill down my spine. I licked my lips and set the DVD back on the rack. “Not sure,” I said, trying to sound casual. “I like movies a lot. But I haven’t heard of any of these.” “Lemme see.” Dennis stepped closer. A waft of cologne and cigarette smoke came over me – almost like Mack, but different, somehow. Sweeter, a little spicier. The kind of scent that made me want to pull him close and bury my face in his neck. “You like movies?” I raised my eyebrows. “You don’t seem like the indoor type.” Dennis laughed harshly. It was the sound that smoke would make if it weren’t silent. The kind of laugh that rang out across an empty desert. The sound of a man who’s spent his life alone, away from the public eye, who started drinking whiskey when he was thirteen and smoking cigarettes in the fifth grade. The kind of man I’d always been attracted to, no matter how dangerous. Dennis reached out for another movie. As he did, I ran my finger down his bare forearm. I couldn’t help it – the skin was muscular, tanned, and covered with older tattoos. There was a smattering of blonde hairs across the tan skin, bleached white by time in the sun. I sucked in a breath and pulled my finger away like Dennis had burned me. “You always touch strange men?” Dennis turned towards me. He angled his body towards mine, effectively blocking me from exiting the library. “Is that a thing you girls do nowadays?” I felt my heart start to race in my chest. “None of your business,” I said primly. I reached past Dennis and pulled a random movie down from the shelf. When I turned the cover over and read the title, I blushed: 9 ½ Weeks. “This look like something you’d watch?” Dennis smirked, leaning in close. At the sight of his eyes up close, my mouth went dry. “No,” I said, putting the movie back on the shelf as hastily as I could. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Dennis chuckled. “Hey, come on. You wanna let me buy you a drink?” I pushed past him and stared at the other DVD racks. Nothing held my interest, and I knew deep down that even if I picked a movie off the shelf, I’d take it home and it would sit in its box on top of my TV. All I could think about was Dennis, and how it would feel to get laid with someone who didn’t actually want me dead. “I don’t want a drink right now,” I said airily. My heart was pounding in my throat and my skin was hot and flushed. I wasn’t used to doing this – to flirting like this, to being so wanton and brazen in public. For one thing, Mack always used to accuse me of flirting with every guy that stepped in my way. But I’d never actually done that. As much as he wanted to accuse me of infidelity, I’d always been a good, loyal girlfriend. The kind of girlfriend who loved and cared for him, even when he beat me up. The kind of girlfriend who still dreamed about getting married in a big poufy dress at the front of a church. But that wasn’t me anymore. I was Anita MacPherson, out on my own, and I was determined to make sure I never wound up in a bad situation ever again. “Then what do you want?” Dennis stepped closer. I felt butterflies swarm around in my stomach and my heart skipped a beat. I want you, I thought suddenly. I want you to come home with me and sleep with me and make me feel good. I swallowed hard. “I don’t know,” I said softly. But I was lying. I knew exactly what I wanted. I wanted to forget all about the baby growing in my belly. I wanted to forget all of Mack’s abuse, and the sadness of the past. I wanted to do what adult women did: have a one night stand with one of the most gorgeous men I’d ever seen. “I think you’re lying,” Dennis smirked. “I think you know exactly what you want.” He raised his eyebrows at me and his green eyes glittered in the bright library lighting. “And I don’t think it involves DVDs.” I bit my lip and glanced away. Do it, Anita, I thought. Just do it. Have one night of fun before the baby comes. You deserve it. This has been a long time coming. I blinked. “Do you want to come home with me?” “What?” Color rose to my cheeks. “Do you want to come home with me?” I repeated again, this time more softly. Dennis smirked. He rocked back and forth on the balls of his feet, the heels of his boots clacking

against the library’s tiled floor. “And why would you ask that?” He leaned in closer and my mouth went dry. I wanted to reach out and touch him, to pull him close, to kiss him deeply. But I could barely move. “Because,” I said softly, meeting his bright green eyes with my own. “I want to. Do I have to explain it any further?” With a little laugh, I tossed my brown hair over my shoulder. “I never do things like this,” I added. “Don’t you get that?” Dennis inhaled sharply. He set the DVD in his hand back down on the rack with a loud clang. “Yeah,” he said after a moment. “I’ll come home with you.”

Chapter Seven Anita As soon as we were in the front door of my cottage, Dennis’ arms were wrapped around me and his lips were pressed against mine. He was an intense, deep kisser and I blushed as his tongue slipped between my lips and sought the hidden corners of my mouth, tasting me, licking me, taking delicious pleasure in the kiss itself. I went weak in the knees and wrapped my arms around Dennis’ neck, pressing my body against his. It had been so long, so desperately long since I’d kissed someone with this much passion and I didn’t want anything to ruin the moment. It was like a soap bubble: perfect, but temporary. Dennis’ hands slipped inside my black shirt and tugged it off and over my head. I was a little selfconscious of my tiny baby bump but I knew that realistically, I had nothing to worry about. Mack had always pressured me to keep my body in perfect shape for him, and I’d done nothing but comply. After all, if I didn’t, there was a whip or a strap or a fist waiting to punish me. Don’t think about that, I urged myself. I closed my eyes and tried to lose myself in Dennis’ passionate kisses once more. Dennis growled as we moved together. He unzipped my jeans and began tugging them down my hips, so roughly that his fingernails scratched. The sensation was delicious and intoxicating and I moaned softly as I felt the cool air of the cottage brush against my skin. Dennis slipped a hand between my legs and began to rub his thumb against my clit, through the soft cotton of my panties. He had perfect aim, and the feeling was nothing short of incredible. I sucked in a sharp gasp of air as Dennis began to rub me more vigorously, panting and dropping to his knees. I let out a cry as he forced my legs apart and wrapped his arms around my hips, pulling my crotch closer to his face and nuzzling at the damp fabric covering my pussy. As I cried out with pleasure, Dennis slipped a finger inside the waistband and tugged the material down. His mouth was fastened around my clit, sucking me hard through the cotton. I closed my eyes and tilted my head back, breathing hard and feeling my face turn red with the effort and emotion of it all. The sensations rushing through my body were enough to make me drop to my knees. Instead, I braced myself on the foyer table and held on tightly as Dennis slipped a finger inside my wet hole. His finger wriggled and moved against me until I thought for sure I was going to come. When I closed my eyes, I saw stars exploding on the insides of my lids. Suddenly, Dennis pulled away. I let out a loud whine of surprise as he stood up, kissing me savagely. I tasted my musky, sweet scent on his mouth. He pressed his lips against mine. “Lick me clean,” Dennis murmured in a low growl. The words sent a chill down my spine but I stuck out my tongue and obediently licked his lips and tongue clean of my wetness. As I was sucking on his lower lip, Dennis shoved his fingers inside my mouth. I groaned and deep throated them as Dennis growled with lust. He reached down with his free hand and ripped my panties clean off – I heard the cotton tearing – then tossed them to the floor. When I was completely naked, he stuck the same hand between my legs and began stroking my labia, just gently enough to drive me completely wild.

It had never been like this. Not with Mack, not in dreams that I’d sometimes had about other men. I’d never been with someone who so clearly wanted nothing more than to absolutely devour me. Dennis slipped a thumb inside of me and used two fingers to stroke my clit in rapid succession. I felt hotter and hotter until finally I collapsed against his chest and let out a strangled cry into his neck. The orgasm hit me like a shockwave, and I found that I could barely breathe as my lower belly was gripped with intense sensations of pleasure, over and over again. I felt like something was pulsing and hot between my legs, and I couldn’t believe that I’d come so quickly. The orgasm didn’t do a damn thing to diminish my lust; I felt more turned on than ever. Grabbing Dennis’ hand from between my legs, I slipped my hands under his shirt and tugged it over his head. He was beautiful shirtless. He had a sculpted chest covered in tattoos, with a sparse pattern of hair right between his brown nipples. The skin was tan, just like everywhere else on his body, and there were puckered scars over each abdominal muscle. Slowly, gently, I ran my fingers over them. My breath was starting to slow but my skin felt hot. There was a bulge at the fork of Dennis’ trousers and I couldn’t wait to see what his cock looked like. I shivered in anticipation – the bulge looked big, and I swallowed hard at the thought of Dennis sliding inside of me for the first time. “Is what want you wanted?” Dennis growled. “You wanted me to come over here and suck your clit until you got off?” I shook my head slowly. Without answering, I hooked my thumbs in the loops of Dennis’ jeans and pulled him close. With one hand, I unbuttoned his jeans and with the other, I tugged the zipper down. Dennis shifted his hips and the material slid down his body and pooled on the floor. He was naked underneath, and just as big as I’d expected. The sight of his rock-hard, veiny cock was enough to make my mouth go dry and I reached out and wrapped my hand around the hard erection. Dennis groaned in response. He tilted his head back and moaned, then steadied himself with a hand on the table. Silently, I got to my knees and crawled towards him. Up close, he had the most beautiful erection I’d ever seen. His cock was thick and hard and I pulled it closer to my mouth, wrapped my lips over my teeth and gently began to suck the head until Dennis was crying out with pleasure. Slowly, I rubbed my tongue along the delicate underside of the head. Dennis’ cock twitched and pulsed in my mouth, and I wrapped one hand around the base and began to pump up and down as I moved my mouth on his hard member. Dennis jerked his hips forward, shoving his cock further into my mouth and practically down my throat as I cupped his balls with my free hand, folding the tender skin with my thumb and forefinger. He tasted good – like a man. Musky, clean, a little salty. Closing my eyes, I sucked him gently, savoring the taste. Dennis groaned. His hips spasmed a little, and he shoved them forwards until his cock was pressing against my tonsils. I groaned, breathing through my nose and licking and sucking at his shaft. “God, Anita,” Dennis groaned. He buried his hand in my hair and tugged hard. The sensation was incredible. Sucking his dick was turning me on more than I cared to admit – between my legs was a wet mess. My pussy was dripping down my inner thighs and I wriggled my hips at the ticklish sensation. I want his cock inside of me, right now, I realized as I sucked him with wild abandon.

Dennis grunted loudly, yanking my hair harder than before and sending a wealth of delicious sensations through my body. Finally, he pushed me away, then stared down at me, breathing hard. “You’re fuckin’ good at that,” Dennis growled. There was fire blazing in his peridot eyes and I shivered at the way he was looking at me. “I wanna fuck you,” Dennis grunted. He reached down and grabbed me, wrapping his hands around my torso and pulling me up to face him. Wordlessly, I tangled my fingers with Dennis’ and pulled him back into my bedroom. The bed wasn’t made, and I could smell the musky scent of my own unwashed hair and body emanating from the bed. As Dennis grabbed me more tightly, I pressed my body against his and kissed him deeply. He still tasted faintly like my pussy, and the scent of my own private parts on his mouth was enough to drive me wild. We clawed and grabbed at each other, finally falling down on the bed in a tangle of limbs and skin. Dennis’ rock hard cock was poking me in the thigh. For a moment, we tussled, winding up with Dennis pinning me down on my back. From this angle, he looked like a powerful god. I shuddered with lust as he spread my legs, slapping my thighs apart. “I wanna tie you down to the bed,” Dennis growled. A shiver of lust went through me and my cheeks burned with desire. Instead of replying, I wrapped my arms around Dennis’ neck and pulled him in for a passionate kiss. His teeth bumped against my lower lip and I moaned softly into his mouth. Again, Dennis’ hands found their way to my hair and he tugged gently, pulling my face even closer to his own until our noses were smashed together. As we kissed, his free hand wandered between my legs, tickling my inner thighs until I thought I was going to go crazy with wanting. I arched my back, spreading my legs as wide as they would go. Dennis lowered himself between my thighs, teasing me with the tip of his cock. It was rock hard and I could feel him pressing against me, threatening to slide inside at any minute. “Do you have a condom?” I breathed into Dennis’ ear. “I don’t use no fuckin’ rubbers,” Dennis replied. He grabbed my wrists with one hand and suddenly pinned my arms above my head until I was flat on the bed. The sensation excited me even more thoroughly, and I moaned as his cock slid all the way inside of my pussy until he was buried to the hilt in my warm wetness. Dennis stayed inside me for a moment, his bright green eyes staring into mine. As I struggled against his grip on my wrists, he just gripped me more tightly. Slowly, Dennis began to rock his hips against mine. His cock slid out of my pussy and I groaned softly, then wrapped my legs around his waist as he slid back inside. The sensation was incredible. He filled me perfectly, like we were made for each other. I felt like I was a tightly-stretched string and he was playing me like an instrument. The sensations building in my body grew more intense with each moment, and I closed my eyes and strained my body against his. Dennis growled. He leaned down and pressed his lips to mine, biting my lower lip until I cried out with pleasure and pain. As he nudged my head up, he lowered his face to my neck and kissed and licked the delicate skin until I was squirming against him. Finally, he released my wrists and lowered his hands to my hips, where he pushed me down into the mattress with each thrust until we were

bouncing together like a pair of rag dolls. I could feel the pleasure swelling and tensing inside my body, and as I let out a wild yelp of pleasure, Dennis bit into my neck so hard that I howled. It felt insanely good – before, I’d never thought that pain could be pleasurable. But the way he used my body, pushing me to the limits and back, was the most intensely delightful thing I’d ever felt. I existed only for Dennis, only for Dennis to fuck, only for Dennis to claim. Closing my eyes, I threw my head back into the pillows and let out a wild cry. Dennis slammed his body against mine. He was sweaty and damp and droplets of salty water dripped from his forehead onto my face, until we were coated with each other’s perspiration. Finally, he growled and bucked his hips furiously against mine, slamming his cock inside of me. I felt him twitch and gush inside my pussy. The sensation was enough to set me off, and as I started to come for the second time, Dennis lowered his face to my chest and sucked one of my nipples. A storm of fireworks exploded in my body, and I was howling and thrusting my hips against Dennis until the pleasurable, shocking sensation had subsided. “That was one hell of a fuck,” Dennis murmured. He pulled out of me, then collapsed on the other side of my bed, face down with his ass in the air. With his eyes closed, he almost looked innocent and young. What did I just do, I thought suddenly as I watched my chest heave up and down. My breath was coming in shaky fits and starts and I could still feel the echoing of pleasurable sensations swirling through my limbs. But inside, I felt dead. I felt ashamed. I felt panicked and terrified, like I’d crossed a line. Deep down, I knew I should have never brought Dennis home. It was too dangerous. Even if he wasn’t the same kind of man as Mack, he was a man that I never should have even looked at, much less talked to. As he sat up, I pulled a sheet over my naked body and started fumbling in the nightstand for the pack of cigarettes I’d started keeping there. It was only after I’d lit up and sucked in deeply that Dennis looked up at me. “Can I bum a smoke?” I exhaled in a gush of air. “What?” “Can I have a cigarette?” Dennis rolled over onto his side, making no effort to hide his nakedness. His cock was shrinking, but even flaccid, he was still sizeable. He looked like a Greek god, like some statue in a museum. I blinked, then remembered my manners and passed over the pack and a pink plastic lighter. Dennis eyed me. “You’re an odd one,” he said slowly, taking a cigarette out of the pack and lighting it. As he inhaled deeply, he flopped onto his back and let out a sigh. “And that was one hell of a good lay.”

I nodded silently, not saying anything. I was waiting for it – the inevitable backlash, the fall, the yelling. I began to tremble and shake all over, eventually dropping my cigarette on the carpet and watching it burn a small black hole in the ugly grey upholstery. “What the hell is your problem?” Dennis asked. He cleared his throat – his voice was still low and gravelly. “You always clam up like this after sex?” He raised his eyebrows at me. “And here I was, thinkin’ you were a real laidback kind of gal.” I shook my head. “It’s not like that,” I said softly. I didn’t want to tell him the truth – that I’d never had a moment as normal as this one in my entire life. That every time I’d had sex in the past, it had been followed by a scary, violent incident. That every time, Mack had yelled at me or beat me or told me that he could feel where another man’s dick had been inside my pussy. That I’d never experienced that fabled afterglow, where you were supposed to cuddle and talk and laugh together. “Then what is it like?” Dennis rolled over onto his elbows and took another deep drag of his cigarette, looking up at me with both eyes wide. “What’s your deal, Anita?” I swallowed hard. “I don’t want to tell you,” I said softly. “But I wasn’t exactly with anyone who was nice to me before.” Dennis threw his head back laughing. “That’s a good one,” he said loudly. “You expect me to believe that? Some gorgeous piece of ass like you, and no one’s ever respected you over it?” He shook his head. “God damn, girl, you’ve been with the wrong men!” Before I could stop him, he wrapped an arm around my waist and pulled me close, tossing his cigarette to the side. His lips pressed against mine in a warm, passionate kiss and I closed my eyes as Dennis stroked the side of my face. His stubble rubbed against my chin but I didn’t care – it no longer hurt. I was sure that my face was red and swollen from kissing. When we pulled away, I sighed. “I have to get up,” I said stiffly, swinging my legs over the side of the bed and sitting up. My clothes were in the other room, but I was loathe to walk around naked; once I’d done so in front of Mack and he’d beaten me black and blue for it, calling me a little exhibitionist slut. “Hey,” Dennis said. His voice was softer this time. “What’s all this? What’s the big deal, huh? You were with a couple of assholes, is that it?” I bit my lip and pulled the sheet off the bed, wrapping my body in the thin, scratchy cotton. “I don’t want to talk about it,” I said stiffly. “Excuse me.” And without waiting for a reply, I darted into the living room and scouted around for my jeans and shirt. Our clothing left a trail that started over the threshold of the front door, and I reached down for my shirt and tugged it over my head. Already, I was regretting everything. My stomach felt like it had turned to ice and my heart was beating slowly in my chest. My skin felt cold and clammy, and every time I swallowed there was the taste of iron in my mouth. As I pulled on my jeans, hopping around the

room so I wouldn’t fall, I heard a sharp sound behind me. “Hey,” Dennis said. “What the fuck is all this? You come onto me hot, now you’re cold?” Naked, he leaned against the doorway, showing off his elegantly muscled body. “What the fuck is going on here?” I shook my head quickly, my brown hair falling in tangles over my shoulder. “I told you,” I said stubbornly. “I don’t wanna talk about it.”

Chapter Eight Dennis I stared at Anita in amazement. I didn’t fuckin’ understand – who was this chick? For one thing, I never shoulda fucked her. But oh well, that was obviously in the past at this point. And now she was acting like I was some kind of rabid dog, some kind of monster that wouldn’t leave her alone. I felt more confused than ever as I stepped forward and grabbed my jeans, sliding them on and zipping them up. Anita watched me. She was all eyes, her arms wrapped around her body, hugging herself tightly. She bit her lip and I noticed that her eyes had filled with tears. I couldn’t help but smirk – just what the fuck was she thinking about? Mack? Was I not as good as the President of the Titans? I rolled my eyes. “Look,” I said sharply. “I don’t know what happened in that little head of yours. And it’s not like coming changed anything, either – you came once before we fucked! I don’t mind being told to get out, but I wanna know, what the fuck is bothering you so goddamn much?” Anita shook her head. “I can’t tell you,” she said softly. A tear rolled down her cheek and she reached up to wipe it away. When she moved her hand through the air, I saw that she was trembling. But as soon as I stepped towards her, she jumped backwards like I’d somehow managed to burn her from four feet away. “Girl,” I said sternly. “Chill the fuck out. We’re adults. Adults hook up sometimes, it happens.” I grinned, crossing my fingers behind my back. “It ain’t like we ever have to see each other again. Besides, I don’t even live around here.” Anita swallowed. She shook her head again. “I can’t tell you,” she said. She closed her eyes and sighed, then looked up towards the ceiling. “I mean, I could tell you. But I really don’t want to. You’d think I’m a total freak.” I sat down hard in one of her chairs and crossed my legs. “Try me,” I said. “I don’t usually think people are freaks. Even when they are,” I added, raising my eyebrows. “And especially not you. You’re acting fuckin’ weird as hell, but I don’t know, maybe you had a dog named Dennis or something when you were a little kid and you got real freaked out screamin’ my name back there.” Anita’s jaw dropped and she gaped. “It’s nothing like that,” she said sharply, her brown eyes flashing fire. Again, I had to take in how drop-dead gorgeous she was: those big round eyes, the long brown silky hair. Her perfect, tight little body. Just watching her was making me hard again, and I had half a mind to drag her back in the bedroom and wipe that frown off her face for good. “Then what is it?” I smirked. “Spill it, girly.” Anita sighed. “My ex,…” She said, trailing off.

I grinned. “You gonna tell me that you miss him now, that right?” To my surprise, she shook her head quickly. “No,” Anita said. “No, it’s not that at all.” She took a deep breath. “He used to beat me,” she said slowly. “After sex, usually, but then all the time after we’d been together for a few years. And I….” She trailed off, her breath catching in that lovely, swan-like neck of hers. “And I don’t really know what to do. I’ve never been in a normal situation before. I’ve never just….hung out with someone after sex.” She swallowed again, harder this time. “It feels weird.” I blinked. I hadn’t exactly been expecting her to say that. Back in Carlsbad, I’d made sure that Mack and Anita’s relationship had been none of my business. If any of the Titans had interfered, Mack would have killed us on the spot. That wasn’t the kind of thing I wanted happening to me, and it definitely wasn’t the kind of thing I wanted to see happen to Anita. And yet, here we were. “I’m sorry,” Anita said quickly. “I mean, I know it’s weird, right! For some girl to start talking about her freakshow of an ex-boyfriend right after you sleep with her.” She bit her lip and glanced down at her feet. The sheet from her bed was still wrapped around her perfect little body and I watched carefully as she shifted to see if any skin would be exposed. “I’m sorry,” Anita repeated. “I really am.” I shrugged, grinning. “No skin off my back,” I said. I frowned. I’d always thought Mack’s bark was worse than his bite. I didn’t want to think about the alternative, about what would happen to Anita when I brought her back to Carlsbad, gift-wrapped and ready for Mack. He’d threatened her, sure, but I thought that was all talk. After all, so much of being an Iron Titan was the walk. So much of being an Iron Titan was the swagger, the pretense of being the most masculine man in the world. I’d never thought about us as actual bad guys, despite the heroin and guns and all the rest of the drugs. I’d just always thought we were on a different wavelength from everyone else. Maybe it had been my upbringing. Maybe, I’d never seen a real, normal relationship. It would have been what my high-school shrink called “modeling.” Like, I’d never seen two people who loved each other who didn’t threaten violence at some point. It was just part of how things were. “I have to ask you to leave,” Anita said quickly. “I’m really sorry, but I don’t think I can do this. I can’t keep talking,” she added. “You have to go,” she repeated. “I can’t do this; I can’t see you.” Her voice broke and she buried her face in her hands. “You have to leave,” she said once more, in a muffled tone. I stood up form the chair and pulled my shirt on, tugging it down to cover my belly. “Fine,” I snapped. “I’m fuckin’ out of here, you damn bipolar bitch. The next time you decide you want some real fun, call me.” I turned heel and stormed out of Anita’s place. I’d driven here – I’d followed her car from the library

– and even though I knew I had no reason to be angry, I kicked the side of her house so hard that relentless pain exploded in my foot. “God damn it!” I yelled loudly, striding out into the driveway and kicking the gravel everywhere. None of this was going the way I’d planned. Not at fuckin’ all. Instead of moping, I got behind the wheel of my car and drove back into town. I couldn’t stop thinking of Anita – how she’d come on so hot and heavy at the library, then kicked me out of bed before I’d even gotten a chance to fuck her a second time. It was fuckin’ ridiculous. There was another thing bothering me, too. Anita was going to tell Mack that I’d fucked her. I could just sense it from the fear in her eyes. As soon as I brought her kicking and screaming back to Carlsbad, I had a feeling she’d spill everything. My lips set into a grim line as I realized how angry she was going to be when she realized who I was. I wanted to blame it on her, call her stupid and unobservant. After all, if she’d fuckin’ paid attention to any of the Iron Titans before, she would have known exactly who I was. But evidently she’d never looked at my face. And I wasn’t stupid enough to wear my Iron Titans patches on this little “errand.” I slipped into the same bar where I’d drank the previous day. It was just as empty as it had been before. The anger and dissatisfaction were still swarming around in my veins as I slid onto a stool. God damn it, I thought. I didn’t even get to enjoy a good fuck because of your goddamn guilt. And now I gotta take you back to Carlsbad, kicking and screaming, knowing that I got to fuck you. “What’ll it be, sugar?” “Whiskey,” I said, holding up three fingers. “And don’t fuckin’ skimp,” I added sharply. “I’ve had one hell of a day and I don’t expect you to gyp me.” The bartender laughed. I was partially relieved – back in Carlsbad, I coulda gotten thrown out of a bar for talking shit like that. She shook her head. “Girl problems?” I didn’t answer as she poured me a generous serving of whiskey. After I’d knocked the liquid fire down my throat and held out the glass for more, I licked my lips. “That girl, Anita,” I said, trying to keep my voice as casual as I could. “What’s she like? She been around here long?” “Only about a month or so…” The bartender trailed off. Her eyes cast a skeptical glance at me. “She’s real quiet, and she’s not much of a drinker.” She leaned over the bar and stage-whispered: “I think she got out of a real bad relationship, some shit like that. She told me one time that she never wanted to depend on a man for anything else in her entire life.”

I blinked. “Right,” I said slowly. “So you don’t think she’s lookin’ for a new man, do you?” The bartender glared at me. I felt a buzzing in my pocket and reached down to grab my phone with one hand, holding the other up in the air to let her know I couldn’t talk right now. My stomach sank when I saw the caller ID. It was Mack. I wondered if he already knew we’d fucked, if she’d called him and told him right away. Paranoid, panicked thoughts started rushing through my brain and I blinked. What if this whole thing was a set-up, I wondered. What if she only fucked me because Mack somehow wants me out of the Titans? What if she didn’t really run away, what if she only pretended to leave to test me? What if this whole damn thing was a test, set up by Mack? “Hello?” I cleared my throat. “I mean, hello?” Mack laughter. “You’re a real ass, Collins,” he snapped. “I’ve been trying to call for days and not once do you answer. Where the fuck is she?” I sighed. “The reception here isn’t that great,” I lied. The bartender was watching me, and suddenly I had the curious feeling that she knew everything that was going on. After setting a ten-dollar bill on the bar, I walked away to the corner of the bar and cupped my hand around my mouth. “Well? Did you find the little cunt? You bringing her home?” “Yeah, I found her,” I said. And I fucked her good. She’s a good lay, Mack. I can see why you want her back ASAP. “I’m leaving soon,” I said. “I gotta catch her at a good time.” Mack snorted. “She’s a dumb shit, there is no bad time,” he said. “She’s as fuckin’ stupid as a chicken with no head. Just throw a bag over her head and put her in the damn car.” A heavy, uneasy feeling settled over me, but I couldn’t begin to explain why. “I’m following her around,” I said. “I’ll be able to grab her good in the next day or two.” Mack made a dismissive sound with his lips. “You’d better,” he said sharply. “You wait until she goes inside somewhere, the fuck with that damn car she stole so it won’t start. You think you can handle that, asshole?” I nodded, even though he wasn’t there to see me. “Yeah,” I said darkly. “I got it.” “Good,” Mack said. His tone had turned nasty, and I could picture the evil smile stretching his lips apart. “You’d better bring her back in one piece, Collins. I want first crack at that bitch.” He laughed. “Then who knows. Maybe I’ll throw her to the goddamn dogs.” Before I could reply, he hung up.

Chapter Nine Anita The whole rest of the day, I stayed in bed. Part of me wished that Dennis would come back, insist that I talk to him, insist that I come out with the whole sordid story. I could almost picture myself smiling ironically, telling him that I came from a little town called Carlsbad on the west coast of California. He’d probably think that was rich – I didn’t know where he was from, but mentioning California always made people a little excited. Instead, I took a long shower and tried to read some of the magazines my landlord had left lying around the cottage. They were all old and dated, things like Glamour and Cosmopolitan from three or four years ago. I blinked as I flipped through one of them. There was an article: “How to Keep Your Man Happy!” and I felt my lips twist into a bitter, ironic grin as I read through the list of items. They were all things like: “Lose weight! Give good blowjobs! Always remember to ask how his day went!” If I hadn’t done all of that and more for Mack, I’d be dead on my feet. My lower belly ached, and I realized that sooner or later, I was going to have to make a decision about the baby. I pulled out my phone and started looking up clinics. After working at Rocker & Powell for less than a month, I only had a couple hundred dollars saved up. But that had to be enough for something, right? Finally, I found a Planned Parenthood on the outskirts of town and made an appointment for the following weekend. The girl I spoke with on the phone sounded friendly and confident, something that somehow made me feel worse about the whole damn deal. How was I going to walk in there, a baby in my belly, and tell them to get rid of it? How was I going to manage that? The rest of the week passed in a blur. I went to work – Susan was nosy as ever – and tried to keep my head down. It was as hard as ever to stay focused, and sometimes I wasn’t even sure that I wanted to. After all, I wanted all of this to be over. Sometimes, I found myself crying in the bathroom for hours at a time. This is all my fault, I’d tell my swollen-eyed reflection, biting my lip and glaring fiercely at myself. And if I hadn’t been such an idiot, I never would have wound up with someone who beat me black and blue. Finally, Saturday morning rolled around. Fall was coming to Durango. It felt different than it had back at home. Crisper, more chill. I realized that if I stayed in Durango for the winter, I was going to need a lot of new clothes. Coming from California, I hadn’t even brought closed-toe shoes. As I glanced up at the grey sky, I felt a shiver of hesitation. The clinic was on the outskirts of town, in an office park with a red brick exterior and a flat, sloping roof that was typical of the Colorado architecture. As I parked the car, I glanced around, half afraid that Mack would be there, waiting for me with a gun in his hand, ready to threaten me.

There was no one there, but I still couldn’t shake the feeling that I was being watched. “Hi there,” a receptionist said brightly. Her nametag read ‘Clarice.’ “Do you have an appointment with us?” Without speaking, I slid my ID across the counter. “I do,” I said. “My name is Anita…Anita MacPherson. I called on the phone, earlier this week.” “Okay,” Clarice said. She handed me a clipboard stacked with papers. “I just need you to fill these out, and then someone will call you back.” She smiled at me. I walked over to one of the unoccupied chairs, tucked my purse between my legs, and started filling out the papers. There were more than I expected – in addition to a medical history, it also asked about my sex life. Number of partners, times I’d been tested for sexually transmitted infections in the past. I blushed, not wanting to reveal everything. Even though there was a sign on the wall that read: “This is a safe space,” I didn’t feel safe. I could only imagine Mack storming inside with his angry biker men behind him, ready to kidnap me, kill me, and leave me in a ditch somewhere on the roadside. They took forever to call me back. I’d been sitting for an hour, so long that my ass was numb. More than once, I’d contemplated leaving. Finally, a nurse in blue scrubs came out. She was wearing a friendly smile, and had long blonde hair pushed back with a pink barrette. “Anita? We’re ready for you,” she said with a kind smile. “Come on back.” I felt another sharp wave of nervousness as I stepped up and followed her into a back room. She pointed towards a chair where a paper gown lay. “Go ahead and get changed,” the nurse said. “I’ll be waiting on the other side of the door. Just holler when you’re ready.” As soon as she left the room, I pulled my clothes off quickly and tried to wriggle into the paper gown. It was cold and scratchy against my skin, and I shivered, hopping up onto the examination table and crossing my legs. My pregnancy bump felt bigger than ever. The door swung open and the nurse came back in. “Hi,” she said kindly. “I’m Tamara. I’m a nurse practitioner. Why don’t you tell me a little bit about why you’re here today?” “I’m pregnant,” I said miserably. “I don’t know what to do.” I looked down at my lap. “I’m twentytwo, and I ran away from an abusive relationship in California. I…” I trailed off. Tears came to my eyes and I found myself wiping them away before I knew it. “And I don’t really believe in….um….in getting rid of it, but I don’t want to be a mother,” I confessed. “Maybe I can have it and give it away for adoption? But I don’t think I can have this baby,” I added. “I’m not in a good place to be a mother right now.”

I glanced down, afraid Tamara would judge me for not wanting a baby. After all, all women wanted babies, right? And because I didn’t meant that I was some kind of a freak? “Let’s go over some basic things, and then we can talk about your options,” Tamara said. She gently took the clipboard from me and started thumbing through the papers. “I see you’ve never been tested, or had a Pap smear?” I shook my head, letting my brown hair hide my face. “Mack wouldn’t let me,” I mumbled. “My ex, I mean. He didn’t want me getting tested. He…. he said that I could lie about sleeping with other men that way, and that I wouldn’t catch anything from him if I stayed faithful.” Tamara let out a low whistle. “Well, that’s factually not true,” she said in a light voice. Her face had dropped the hopeful smile, but she didn’t look unkind. “Let’s keep talking. Have you ever been to a gynecologist, Anita?” I shook my head. “No,” I said softly. “I haven’t.” Tamara nodded. “Well, you’re going to have a Pap smear today,” she said. When she saw my wide, horrified eyes, she smiled. “STDs can cause a lot of trouble for a pregnancy, and we’re going to test you and make sure you’re free and clear. As well as a Pap smear – that’s normally part of your first prenatal visit, anyway.” “But I don’t want this baby,” I added, my voice rising high to a fevered pitch. “I don’t want this baby! I don’t want to keep it!” Tamara nodded. “I know,” she said. “But this is all part of the procedure. We need to make absolutely sure you’re safe before we begin any kind of process, okay?” I bit my lip and nodded. “Okay,” I said softly. “Go ahead and lie back, put your feet in the stirrups,” Tamara said. I followed her instructions, but felt her cold hand on my knee a second later. “Go ahead and scoot down more,” she said. “I need to be able to see. I was burning with shame and embarrassment. As many times as Mack had looked at my pussy, I’d never had anyone’s face this close before. Aside from Dennis, I thought. And when he was licking me. The memory made me burn bright with shame and I clamped my legs together even more fiercely. Tamara let out a little laugh. “You’re going to have to relax, Anita,” she said calmly. “This will all be over in a minute. You’re going to feel a little bit of pressure,” she added. “It might sting, but it’s not going to hurt for long.” There was a sharp pain deep inside me, like I was being scraped. I yelped and dug my fingers into the sides of the fake leather examination table.

Tamara sat back. “Okay, we’re done,” she said. “I’ve got everything I need for your tests.” I watched as she put two cotton swabs into two vials and marked them with my name. “Now, I’m going to give you an ultrasound. Do you have any idea when your last period was?” I shook my head. “It was always irregular,” I confessed. “I don’t know. Maybe four months ago? Five?” Tamara frowned slightly. She let me put my legs together, then gave me a sheet to cover my lap while she pulled my shirt up to expose the slight bump on my belly. I cried out in surprise as she squirted cold gel onto my belly, and rubbed it around with a plastic device that was hooked to a cord. She reached up and flicked a switch on the wall, making a screen come to life with grainy, weird-looking images. “This is your baby,” she said, moving the device around. “Can you see it?” I closed my eyes. At first, I didn’t want to look. But then I finally opened my eyes and gazed at the picture. It didn’t look like a baby. It looked like a blob in a bigger blob. But the more I stared, the more I thought I could start to see features. “What is it?” I asked softly. “You’re not saying anything. Is that bad?” Tamara made a little noise and pursed her lips together. “Unfortunately, Anita, you’re over twenty weeks pregnant.” “So? Can’t I still have an abortion?” “Well,” Tamara said slowly. “In Colorado, abortion is legal until the twenty-sixth week. But at Planned Parenthood locations, we don’t perform abortions after the nineteenth week. That’s considered a health risk to the mother, and it’s an inpatient procedure at a hospital.” She glanced down at me. “You would need insurance, and a good hospital appointment.” I bit my lip. “I don’t have insurance,” I confessed. “I… I don’t have the money for any of that.” Tears welled up in my eyes and I blinked. “It’s not that I think abortion is right,” I said. “I just…I don’t know what I can do. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.” Tamara switched off the monitor. “Would you like to think about adoption? We have some paperwork, and you could do some reading, then come back in and speak with one of our counselors about the matter at hand.” I nodded, feeling numb. “Okay,” I said softly. “I guess I can do that.”

Chapter Ten Dennis I trailed Anita all week long. I was half-expecting her to leave town and try going somewhere else. Deep down, I dreaded that possibility. I knew that I’d have a lot of explaining to do to Mack if she left, and I couldn’t handle that right now. But thankfully, everything went pretty fuckin’ well, all things considered. Anita didn’t try shit – she stayed put, she went to work on time, she didn’t even go to lunch during the week. I watched her from a distance, carefully plotting my next move. I couldn’t fuck with her car when she was at work. That was the first big problem. She parked in a big parking lot that was watched all day by a guard. And get this? The parking was free! I laughed my ass off the first time I saw that. After living in California for a while, believing that anything is free seems pretty fuckin’ impossible. But that guard never left the lot, either, and I had a couple of days where I thought about trying to get rid of him. I wouldn’t have known how to do it, though. He kept a close eye, and I didn’t think I could take out a man, then wait for Anita to leave and snatch her off the street. Durango was a small town, but as I’d learned over the years, sometimes small towns were harder to work in than bigger ones. In a small town, everyone knew everyone else’s business. Hell, your neighbor could probably tell everyone what kind of a shit you took after eating Mexican food! Big cities aren’t like that – they’re crowded, but anonymous. It’s easy to get away. It’s easy to hide. So instead, I was stuck waiting for Precious Miss Anita to make another move. Mack called me nearly every day, wanting to know how it was going, wanting to know if I’d bagged her yet. He got angrier and angrier each time we talked, but I promised him that I had everything under control. I told him that I was tailing Anita, sleeping during the day while she worked and then staying up all night watching her cottage. He always asked me if there were guys there, if she brought any men home, if she was fuckin’ anyone else. I always, always told him no. Sometimes I wondered whether or not he’d find out what had happened. I’d gotten over the fear of Anita telling him. After all, if she hated him as much as she pretended, it was likely only a matter of time until she’d run off again. And then, obviously, I wouldn’t be able to go catch her. It would have to be some other innocent, some other man Mack needed a favor from. On Saturday, I was shocked as hell to see Anita up and at ‘em before nine o clock in the morning. She’d always struck me as sort of a lazy girl – the kind of chick who stays in bed with girlie magazines all day, eating ice cream straight from the tub, like a fuckin’ pig. But instead she walked out to the car, dressed in a baggy shirt that hid that perfect figure and a pair of jeans. I waited until she was a block or so away before I followed her.

Anita turned out of town, and I felt my first real note of fear. If she tried running now, I wasn’t sure I could catch up. The car I was driving only had a pint of gas left, and I didn’t trust that bitch not to try losing me on the highway. So you can imagine my real intense relief when she pulled into a shopping center outside town. It was a real dumpy place, with some outdated supermarket, a dollar store, and a discount shoe place. But the final sign made me freeze right in my tracks. It was a Planned Parenthood. And Anita, in her baggy fuckin’ shirt, was goin’ inside. My hands clenched the steering wheel and I screamed “God damn it!” as loud as I could. Fuck! This is bad. This is real, real bad. If she gets rid of that kid, Mack is going to fucking kill me. I’m going to be ruined. I’m gonna get kicked out of the Titans, and be homeless again. Fuck! I knew right then and there that I had no time to lose. As soon as Anita was inside, I pulled up next to her car and pulled my tools out of the back. I popped the hood and went to work. A few seconds later, I had the spark plugs disconnected, in my hand, with the wires fraying around. I grinned to myself – there was something so satisfying about doing what I’d just done, knowing that I was smart enough to figure it out. Mack’s gonna be really proud of me, I thought. But when I thought back to Anita, crawling inside the building like some kind of human parasite, my brief feeling of cleverness with myself disappeared. I was filled with anger, that felt strange and alien. I could have throttled Anita! She was carrying Mack’s child, the heir to the Iron Titans, and she was getting an abortion like some back-alley slut? I couldn’t fucking believe I’d slept with a woman who would do a thing like that. I shook my head as I slammed the hood to Anita’s car and pocketed the spark plugs. At least this espionage shit was easier than I thought. As soon as I was done with the car’s “maintenance,” I climbed back into my car and sped away towards the nearest gas station. I had to be close when Anita would inevitably call and asked me for a ride. My lips curled into a smile. Oh, I’ll give her a ride all right, I thought as I cruised down the road. I’ll give her a ride she’s never gonna forget.

Chapter Eleven Anita After I’d gotten dressed and paid (fifty bucks! Just for a measly ultrasound and a painful prick in my pussy!) I cleared my throat and went outside. To be honest, I wasn’t doing a real good job of thinking just then. I was scared, and nervous. I didn’t want to have a baby. Back in high school, when I thought Mack was the perfect man, I’d wanted a baby. Not then, of course, but when we got older. My eyes filled with tears as I realized that I’d always thought I’d be a mother by now. But now, I was starting to doubt myself. I didn’t want to bring a baby into the world and think of Mack every time I looked at her sweet face. Or his handsome face. It didn’t matter – as long as the baby was Mack’s, I didn’t want it. I know that sounds cold. It’s not like it was the baby’s fault, after all. But I knew that I’d go the rest of my life hating my ex and wishing that I never had to see him again. Plus, there was the question of parental rights. I’d read some horror stories in women’s magazines before, about women who had babies with men they hated. They had ugly custody battles, uglier fights for child support, and sometimes the end result was the ugliest of all. I remembered my old friend from high school, Karen, telling me that her parents had gotten divorced when she was only four years old. They’d fought over her even though neither one of them really wanted her; they only wanted to spite each other. She said that she’d spent her whole life trying to be heard by her parents, but they’d only heard their own screaming instead. I didn’t want my baby to have to deal with that life. Furthermore, I wouldn’t have trusted Mack with custody. After the way he’d abused me for so long, I wouldn’t have wanted to leave him alone with the baby for a second, much less a weekend or a whole goddamn summer. And taking him to court would be expensive, which I couldn’t afford, and painful, which I didn’t wanna deal with. I was in a real situation. I climbed into my car, relieved that soon, I’d be going home and everything would be okay. Or at least, I could pretend. I could take a long bath and maybe order a pizza for dinner. But when I stuck the key in the ignition, nothing happened. I gritted my teeth and tried again. The engine started, but it wouldn’t turn over. I tried over and over again. Just as I started to see wispy grey tendrils of smoke emerging from the hood, I climbed out of the car and felt tears well up in my eyes. The first person I called was Susan. She answered after the second ring, and her voice was thick and clogged with sleep. I bit my lip as I waited for her to take a drink of water, then put the phone back to her ear and answer. “Hello?” There was a pause. “Anita, is that you?”

“Uh, yeah,” I said quietly. “Um, Susan, I need some help.” I cleared my throat and willed the tears to go away, but they began to fall down my cheeks instead. My eyes burned in shame and I realized at that moment, that I felt more helpless than I ever had before. Even before I’d left Mack “What is it?” Susan cleared her throat again. “What happened?” There was a loud sound of crying behind her and she winced loudly. “Hang on, Anita,” Susan said. “I have to put the phone down real quick.” By the time she’d picked up the receiver again, I’d about lost all the nerve that I had. I didn’t want her knowing where I was – not that I felt like she would judge me, but I didn’t want to explain it. I closed my eyes and sighed. “What is it?” Susan asked. She sounded breathless and heavy. “Anita, what happened?” “Never mind,” I said in a falsely cheerful voice. “I’m fine. I thought I had a question about work but everything’s fine! I’m fine.” I hung up before Susan could ask anything else. My heart was pounding slowly in my chest and I crawled into the backseat of my car, laying down like I was sick. I’d felt like everyone in the parking lot was staring at me, like I was some kind of freakshow. There was only one person left to call, and I really, really didn’t want to call him. Dennis picked up on the first ring. He sounded jaunty, exhilarated, like he was off doing something much more fun and exotic than hanging out in Durango, Colorado on a Saturday morning. “Hey, Anita,” Dennis said. “You chill out yet? You want me to come over?” I shook my head and bit my lip. “Um, no,” I said. “Actually… I ran into a little bit of car trouble.” I glanced up at the other stores. “I was out at this shoe store and when I got back in the car, it wouldn’t start.” I sniffled, suddenly worried that I was going to start crying again. “Can you come pick me up and take me home?” “Yeah, sure,” Dennis said. My heart soared – I was glad that I’d called him. “Do you have an address?” I sniffled again, then looked for the scrap of paper in my purse with the Planned Parenthood address on it. “I’m in the Red Apple Shopping Mall, just outside of town,” I said, wiping my nose on my hand. “Thanks, Dennis.” Dennis pulled up five minutes later and honked the horn. I thought that was kind of weird – where was he that he’d been so close? Durango was small but not that small. Still, I wasn’t about to ask any questions for my new Knight in Shining Armor. He’d really helped me when I couldn’t have asked anyone else.

“Hey,” I said as I slid in the car. “Thanks.” I smiled at him. Dennis looked just as handsome as ever. He was wearing a denim shirt with a patch on the back and big mirrored sunglasses. His blonde stubble had grown out even more, and I was tempted to reach over and touch him. But thinking of the baby in my belly stopped me cold in my tracks. “Not a problem,” Dennis said. “So, did you buy anything?” He glanced down at the floorboards of the passenger side, locking all doors as we cruised out of the parking lot. “What?” I frowned. “What are you talking about?” Dennis chuckled. “You went shoe shopping,” he said. “Did you buy any shoes, Anita?” I shook my head. As we drove along the picturesque side streets, I began to feel oddly nervous. Chill out, Anita, I thought. This is Dennis. He’s not a complete stranger. You’ve slept with him, for god’s sake! So chill the fuck out! “Hey,” I said. “Where the hell are we going, anyway?” Dennis smirked. “Home,” he said. “Where you belong.” He glanced over at me. “I’m sure you’re pretty fuckin’ tired by now, aren’t you?” I nodded, although I wasn’t sure what he meant. He sped up as we passed through the main part of town, gliding past the stores at an alarming and fast pace. My mouth was dry – I couldn’t wait to get home and drink the whole bottle of juice that I had waiting for me in the fridge. Ever since I’d found out about the baby, I hadn’t had many cravings. In fact, thinking about food called to mind that incident at Café Nori. But I’d been craving sugary juice, and that was all I’d bought last night when I’d gone to the store. I could practically see it in the fridge now: half-frozen, dripping condensation, a beautiful deep purple-red color. “Yeah,” I said finally. “I’m exhausted.” Dennis didn’t reply. He was staring straight ahead at the road, his lips twisted into an odd expression. I couldn’t see his eyes because of the sunglasses, and suddenly I began to wish that he’d taken them off. There was always something unnerving about talking to Mack when he was wearing shades, and suddenly I felt the same feeling echoing back within me, like it had sprung up from nowhere. “I bet you are,” Dennis repeated. He slammed on the brakes just in time to stop for a red light, then sighed as the cars in front of us began to cross back and forth. My heart started to beat faster and faster in my chest. “So, um, what do you do?” I asked. “I work for a law firm,” I added. “I haven’t been there long – only a couple of weeks – but everyone’s really nice. I work for Rocker & Powell, Attorneys at Law. You’ve probably seen their office, it’s downtown. Small, but really nice—”

“Shut up, Anita,” Dennis said. The light turned green and we sped through the intersection. I felt the car bounce over a bump in the road and a faint feeling of nausea spread through my limbs as a result. I began to hope and pray that I wouldn’t be sick in Dennis’ car. “Okay,” I said meekly. “I’m sorry.” I shifted around on the leather seat. “And you know, I’m really sorry about last week,” I said. “I shouldn’t have thrown you out, but things came down to that and I’m just really sorry about it. I don’t have a lot of experience with guys, and I was hoping that you’d understand even though I didn’t do a really good job of explaining my—” “Shut up, Anita,” Dennis growled. He reached forward and pressed the radio button, then turned it up to an ear-shattering volume. I cringed and covered my ears as loud, abrasive classic rock filled the car. When I looked at Dennis, I felt more confused than ever. What is going on with you? I thought as I shifted in the seat again and leaned against the window. What the hell is your problem? You seemed happy enough to pick me up in the first place! That was when I noticed we were pulling on the highway. West. Towards California. Reaching forward, I cut the radio off. “What the fuck is going on?” I asked in a shaky voice. “Where are you taking me?” Dennis smiled grimly. “I told you,” he said. “I’m taking you home.” He turned towards me and looked at me over the tops of his sunglasses. “Don’t you want to go home, Anita? You’ve been gone for so long.” He shook his head and clucked his teeth. “Your boyfriend really misses you.” Suddenly, it hit me. It hit me harder than a punch to the gut ever cold. I felt like someone had dumped a bucket of ice water over my head, like someone had pushed me over the edge of the Grand Canyon and I was falling down, down, down without a parachute. “You…” I trailed off, my voice shaking. “You! You were working for him all along!” The fear in my voice was quickly replaced by anger as Dennis nodded his head in a quick affirmation of the terrible words I’d just spoken. “How could you do that to me?” I shrieked, reaching over and slapping Dennis’ face hard with my open palm. “How could you do that?” Dennis shook his head. “It’s my fuckin’ job, lady,” he replied. “I don’t give a good god damn why you ran off, but you’re goin’ home now, or it’s my neck that’s on the line.” He pulled the car off onto the shoulder of the road and turned to face me. “And if you ever, ever hit me again...” he trailed off. “You’ll make the journey home tied up in the trunk, you got that?” He glanced down towards my belly. “And I don’t think little Mack Jr. in there would like that too much.” I felt a cold spike of fear slide down my throat. My life was officially over.

Chapter Twelve Anita As Dennis merged onto the highway back to Hell a.k.a. Carlsbad, I couldn’t stop the knot from expanding in my stomach. For a moment, it was almost too painful to breathe. The past came rushing back to me like a punch in the gut. No, actually, it wasn’t like a punch. It was like being pushed off the deck of the Titanic into icy, black water. It was like drowning and feeling like I was over my head. Everything hurt. Breathing hurt. I knew that I had to make Dennis see the truth. “Dennis,” I whimpered. “Please. Please listen to me.” I glanced at him – he was driving with his lips pressed together in a tight line. “Please,” I begged. “Please!” “Shut up, Anita,” Dennis growled. “I don’t want to hear it! I don’t care! Mack’s my boss, you gotta understand that. I do what he tells me to do. That’s how this shit goes!” He pounded the wheel with his fist and a shock of real fear went through my body. If I couldn’t make him understand, if I couldn’t make him see the truth… I had no idea how I was going to get out of this predicament. My heart was beating as fast as a rabbit’s as we rounded a curve on the highway. The car let out an angry hiss and Dennis cursed, smacking the dashboard with his fist. “Dennis, he’s going to hurt me. And he’s going to hurt the baby,” I said softly. “He’s a monster. You don’t know him at all.” For a moment, Dennis was silent. Then he gazed at me for a long time before turning his attention back to the road. “I don’t care,” he said finally. “I can’t care, Anita. I had no one – no family, no one – for a long fuckin’ time. And Mack’s the only guy who’s ever taken me seriously. Mack gave me a chance when no one else would.” “Dennis,” I begged. “I’ll give you a chance! Please! Just let me go, please! I won’t tell anyone!” Dennis gripped the wheel so tightly that his knuckles turned white. “Shut up, Anita,” he muttered. “Shut up. Just shut the fuck up!” Tears came to my eyes and I looked down at my hands in my lap. They were shaking like leaves. “No,” I said. My voice sounded calmer than I felt. “No,” I repeated. “I want to tell you a story, okay? And if you’re still hell-bent on dragging me back to Carlsbad after that, fine.” I was bluffing – I had absolutely no intention of letting Dennis bring me back there. But I knew that I had to try something. Dennis swallowed. I watched his Adam’s apple bob from the corner of my eye. “Fine,” he said. “You got ten minutes. You better make ‘em fuckin’ good ones.”

I licked my lips. “A few years ago, Mack got into blow for a while. You remember that?” I cringed at the mere thought of that time – waking up and finding Mack strung out in the living room, twitching, his nostrils coated in a white so bright it looked like flour. “Yeah,” Dennis barked. “I remember. What’s the big fuckin’ deal?” “He used to go on benders,” I said slowly. “He’d get enough blow for two, maybe three days, and hole up with a bunch of porn and weed and enough shit to get him through the weekend.” I swallowed. “And one of those times, I was supposed to go away, I can’t remember why.” I did remember why. I’d gotten a call from the hospital where I’d gone after my last check-up. I had some kind of benign cyst on my ovary, and I was supposed to have surgery. “And?” “And I didn’t go away,” I said simply. “I was… well, it doesn’t matter now.” I paused, wiping the tears that came to my eyes. The cyst had burst before I’d gotten to the hospital – there was nothing they could have done. They advised me to stay home and “get my boyfriend to take care of me” for a few days. Oh, if only those idiots had known. “Hurry the fuck up,” Dennis growled. “This ain’t a two-way conversation, Anita. You gotta know it’s nothin’ personal. I’m doing my job.” “And I’m trying to talk you out of it,” I rambled. “Because Mack had made plans to party the whole time I was supposed to be gone. And when I got home, he was so mad at me that he told me he wasn’t going to let me ruin his fun.” I wrapped my arms around myself and leaned back into the car seat. “I went into the bedroom and closed the door and lay down. It was fine for a while. Mack was listening to music, real loudly, but at least he was leaving me alone.” As I talked, my stomach began to churn. I hadn’t thought about this incident for a long time – what felt like months. And thinking of it again was enough to make me start quivering with fear at the knowledge that within a day, I’d be this man’s possession again. Not this man, I thought. This monster. “And what happened?” Dennis shifted in the seat. He reached forward and turned the radio down to a low volume. After punching the cigarette lighter into the dashboard, he pulled a smoke out of his pocket and let it dangle from his lower lip. I swallowed hard. “He left me alone for about two hours,” I said. “I was curled up in bed, just starting to drift off to sleep. And then he burst through the door…” I trailed off. “He was so high that he looked manic. His hair was standing up on end, and his eyes were bloodshot and his nose was crusted with blow. And before I could stop him…” I trailed off, closing my eyes and letting my head rest against the window. “He dragged me out to the living room and raped me. More than once. It went on for hours. The second I tried fighting him, he punched me in the stomach until I passed out. When I woke up, I was tied to the couch.” I thought I saw Dennis’ eyebrows shoot up from behind his mirrored sunglasses but I couldn’t be sure.

When he didn’t say anything, I continued: “That went on for three days. Three. Days. I couldn’t even tell how much time had gone past. The only way I knew was when it was over, I had a voicemail on my phone from work, demanding to know why I hadn’t showed in three days.” Dennis cleared his throat. “But he doesn’t do blow anymore,” he said. His voice was shaking but the car was still pushing forward at seventy miles per hour. “Those days are over, and they have been for a long time. The Titans don’t deal with that shit anymore.” “But it still happened,” I said softly. “And he never apologized. Not a single fucking time. I was so black and blue that I couldn’t go outside for weeks, Dennis. I had to quit my job.” I wiped another frantic tear away from my eye. “Do you know what that feels like? Do you know how desperate I felt?” Dennis didn’t reply. He pressed the gas pedal even harder and the car shot forward. A rattling noise started from under the hood and a burst of excitement shot through me. “That doesn’t sound good,” I commented. “You need to pull over and check it out?” Dennis glared at me. “You’re done talking,” he snapped. “Shut up.” For the next five minutes, we drove on in. Dennis kept cursing under his breath and smacking the dash with his fist. That didn’t do anything to stop the noise – it kept rumbling from under the hood like a demon wrapped around the engine. Finally, he pulled over to the shoulder. “Don’t try anything,” Dennis warned. He yanked the keys out of the ignition and my heart sank as he dropped the keys in his pocket. He climbed out of the car, locked it from the outside, and then busied himself under the hood. There was a foul odor in the air and white smoke billowed out into the air. I slid down in the seat and rested my hands over my belly. My baby bump was small, but noticeable, and suddenly I was filled with the most acute sense of panic and dread that I’d ever felt. The landscape was already starting to change – we were past the Rocky Mountains and I could tell that soon, we’d be seeing the flat, dry landscape of California. I shuddered as I remembered how I’d first felt when we’d moved to Carlsbad. Sure, some of the abuse had already started. But deep down, I was proud that we’d have a chance to start our lives together. I thought it was going to be a good thing, I thought it was going to be a chance for us to build something perfect together. Well, not perfect. I wished I could go back in time and strangle myself, do anything to keep myself from making that fateful decision to go with Mack, to abandon my parents, to completely forget about any shred of self-respect that I could have had. Without Dennis’ stern presence beside me, I couldn’t keep from breaking down into sobs. I wrapped my arms around my body and clutched myself tightly. The tears were falling faster than my hopes of

being able to wriggle out of this situation, and my mind was spinning. It was my fault. I knew it was my fault – if I hadn’t been so damn horny in Durango that day! I glanced down at my stomach, where I knew in a few months’ time I’d be as round as a ball. I’m sorry, baby, I thought as a hot tear slipped down my cheek. I love you, and I’m sorry I couldn’t protect you from the monster. It might have seemed odd, that I was already so in love with my baby when I hated the father more than anyone else on earth. But I didn’t think of it like that – I knew that deep down, my unborn child was going to have their own personality. And I thought that as long as I could keep them away from Mack, nothing too horrible would happen. I mean, sure, they might have a tendency for the bad behavior in life. But I’d come so close to that perfect, sweet little vision of single motherhood. And while most people wouldn’t have called that glamorous, it was exactly what I wanted. I wondered, deep down, if the idea had appealed to me so much because it seemed like a way I could atone for my past mistakes. Sure, I’d fucked up my relationship with my parents beyond repair. And obviously few guys would want me after I’d given birth to someone else’s child. But that no longer mattered. I would miss having sex, especially with bad boys, but I wanted so desperately to devote myself to being the perfect mother, to raising a child who would love me unconditionally. And now that was never going to happen. I wondered what Mack was going to say when he saw me for the first time in weeks. I wondered if he was going to hit me immediately, in front of Dennis, or wait until we were alone. In the early stages of our relationship, he’d always waited. But now, I wasn’t so sure that he’d do me that courtesy. He was going to be so, so angry. I shuddered with fear just as Dennis slammed the hood shut and unlocked the car. As he slid into the driver’s seat, he didn’t even look at me. The taste of metal seeped onto my tongue and I shivered. He doesn’t care about me, I realized. I’m just cargo to him. I’m not even a real person. I could be a sack of fucking potatoes for all he cares. “Overheated,” Dennis said. He wiped his hands on his jeans. “We’re gonna have to sit here for a little while.” I swallowed hard. “Well?” Dennis asked “You don’t have anything to say about that, Chatty Cathy?” I shook my head, letting my hair fall down over my eyes. “No,” I muttered. “I don’t care. But you might as well call Mack and tell him that we’re going to be late.” Dennis snorted. “He’s already riding my ass,” he replied as he pulled a lighter out of his pocket and lit another cigarette. “Can you roll down the window?” I asked quietly. “I don’t want… I don’t want my baby exposed to

that.” “Shit,” Dennis muttered. He tried to start the car but the engine wouldn’t turn. Eventually, he opened the door. “If you try anything,” he warned. “I’ll make sure we get back to California before nightfall.” My stomach churned but the fresh air blowing through the car was a relief. I shifted in the seat, already tired of sitting in the car. “So,” Dennis said. He turned towards me, one hand gripping the handle on the door. “You were really gonna get rid of that thing?” He gestured towards my stomach. “I couldn’t,” I replied. I swallowed hard. I didn’t want to make that distinction for him. Of course, I didn’t really believe in abortion. But the timing had taken the choice out of my hands completely. There was nothing left that I could have done. “You gonna keep it?” I glared at him. “I don’t feel like talking about this,” I said. I sighed. “I was pregnant once before, you know. Right after I moved to Carlsbad with Mack.” “What happened?” “I lost the baby.” Dennis’ eyes widened but he didn’t say anything. “Right,” he said. “I’m gonna try the car again.” He threw his cigarette butt out of the window and pumped the key into the ignition. Miraculously, the car roared to life. I rolled down my window as we cruised away from the shoulder, merging with traffic. The sun was starting to get low in the sky and I tried not to panic for the hundredth time as I did the math in my head. Durango was a twelve-hour drive from Carlsbad. I didn’t know how long we’d been in the car. Dennis had taken my bag and my phone, and the clock on the dashboard was permanently stuck at 5:45. There was no way of knowing just how much time I had left. “He’s going to kill me,” I said softly. “He’s not going to let me live after leaving him like that.” “He’s not gonna kill you,” Dennis said. He snorted. “Mack talks a tough game, but he ain’t a bad man.” “Are you kidding?” I twisted against the seat belt. “He’d spent almost every day of the last few years beating me! He doesn’t give a shit about me!” Dennis shifted. “That’s how men like Mack show that they’re yours,” he said. “That’s how bikers are, honey. If you didn’t wanna be treated like that, you shouldn’t have started shacking up with someone like him!”

“Forgive me,” I spat back. “I was only fucking sixteen when we met! I didn’t know that he’d wind up being so damn abusive! He promised me the world!” Dennis coughed and spat out the window, pushing us further and further away from safety with each passing moment. I swallowed hard. I was racking my brain, trying to think of something to do, when a memory slammed into my skull with more force than a semi-truck. Back when Mack first started hitting me, I was always able to get him to stop if I promised to get on my knees and suck his dick. I hadn’t enjoyed it, but it had come in handy. Slowly, I reached over and put my hand on Dennis’ lap. His thigh was muscular and strong, and my hand barely covered any ground as I slowly moved it toward his crotch. I could feel his flaccid cock and I rubbed my fingers over it, moaning slightly. Dennis flexed and shifted under my touch. He ground against my hand, then shoved his hips back against the seat. “What the fuck are you doing,” Dennis hissed. “I’m trying to drive, for fuck’s sake!” “Pull over,” I said softly. “Pull over and let me do something nice for you, Dennis. Then we can talk about all of this.” I held my breath as I moved my hand over Dennis’ crotch again, rubbing the bulge between his legs. “Stop,” Dennis growled. His voice was throaty and deep and a shiver of arousal went soaring through my body as I felt his cock begin to stiffen beneath my hand. “Stop it,” Dennis repeated. He closed his eyes. I rubbed him harder, fondling his cock through the stiff denim. When he was rock hard, I began sliding my fingers up and down the shaft, caressing him as thoroughly as I could. My wrist ached after a second, but I noticed that he didn’t pull away. “Stop it!” Dennis growled. He shivered and bucked in his seat. The car swerved to the side and I shrieked, thinking that we were flying off the road. But instead Dennis slowed the car to a stop and I realized that we were back on the shoulder. “Why, Dennis?” I turned to him with what I hoped was a sultry pout on my face. “Why do you want me to stop?” I made my eyes wide and stared up at him, trying to imagine that he was Mack. This always used to work, I thought. This always used to make Mack stop what he was doing and relax in the pleasure. Men are all the same – they’re simple creatures. They’re hardwired for pleasure like this. They just want some woman to take care of them, that’s all. They just want to be doted on. “This isn’t right,” Dennis growled. His face was red and flushed and as I continued to stroke his erection, I noticed that his jaw was twitching. “Stop it,” Dennis said. He didn’t sound as forceful as before. When he tried to push my hand away, I reached over with my free hand and held his arm in place.

“Dennis,” I cooed. “Come on, this could be different. You don’t have to take me back to Mack. You could let me out right here, and everything would be fine. Just let me pleasure you, let me help you cum, and—” “No,” Dennis said sharply. He finally pushed my hand away – it was stinging from the feel of the rough denim against the sensitive skin of my palm. “No, I can’t let you do that,” he growled. “I have to take you back. That’s my fuckin’ job.” “But you don’t really have to,” I said softly. When I realized he wasn’t going to push me away again, I reached over and began stroking his still-erect cock. I didn’t want to admit it, but touching Dennis like this was starting to turn me on. “Stop,” Dennis groaned. He closed his eyes and threw his head back. “Anita, stop it. This is crazy – it’s fucking insane! You can’t manipulate me like this!” “I’m not manipulating you,” I said sweetly. “I’m just trying to work out an arrangement that benefits both of us, don’t you see that?” I rubbed Dennis’ cock softly with my fingers. “I just want to make you feel good, and I want you to do something for me. You don’t even have to tell Mack! Just tell him that you couldn’t find me in Durango, that you think I went somewhere else.” Dennis made a sound in the back of his throat and his eyes rolled back in his head. “God,” he groaned. “Anita, stop!” “No,” I purred, reaching over with my free hand and stroking his chest. “You’re so big and strong,” I said softly. “Don’t you want to help me, Dennis? Don’t you want to do the right thing?” Dennis didn’t reply. I trailed my hand down his muscular chest, feeling his abdominal muscles through the thin fabric of his T-shirt. “Dennis,” I purred softly. “If you don’t help me, I’m going to run away again. I’ll have the baby and abandon it. I’ll drop it off at the hospital, and then it’s going to grow up alone, just like you did. Don’t you want the baby to have a family?” Dennis was silent. I continued rubbing him sensually and leaned closer so that my lips were inches away from his ear. “Dennis, you could do the right thing,” I repeated softly, sticking out my tongue and licking his earlobe. He smelled like man, and the scent was enough to make my lower belly tangle with arousal. “You could do this with me,” I said softly. “If you want the baby to have a family, we could raise it together.” Dennis pushed my hands away. His chest was heaving and I realized that he was panting madly, like a dog.

“Anita,” Dennis said in a warning tone. “You don’t know anything about me – you don’t know anything about my life!” “Sure I do,” I said, reaching back over and stroking his thigh with my fingers. Dennis shuddered under my touch. This time, he didn’t push me away. Cautiously, I dragged my fingers up his thigh and began stroking the head of his cock through his jeans. “Anita,” Dennis warned. “Don’t start this. Don’t try anything funny with me. I’m not letting you get away with this!” “I’m not doing anything wrong,” I replied as I stroked his hard erection. Touching Dennis was starting to make me feel really horny, and combined with the high anxiety and adrenaline flooding my body, part of me couldn’t resist the idea. “I’m just touching you, that’s all. You like that, Dennis, don’t you? You like it when I pleasure you like this.” Dennis growled, low in his throat. “Anita,” he warned. “Don’t try anything. Don’t keep doing this with me!” “We could raise the baby together,” I said softly. “We could be its parents, and love it, and make sure that it always knew it was wanted. Dennis, don’t you want this baby to grow up with a mother and father who love it? Don’t you want the baby to have a different story than you?” Dennis didn’t answer. “I know you had a lonely, sad childhood,” I said. “I know you bounced from house to house in the foster system. But that doesn’t have to be the case with this baby. This baby is your chance to start over – to give someone what you always wanted and never had. Dennis, this is like a second chance for you!” “You don’t know shit about me,” Dennis countered. “You don’t know what I had to deal with growing up – you don’t know how things were!” “I do, though,” I said sweetly. “I’ve listened, Dennis. You and the rest of the Iron Titans always thought I was invisible. But I wasn’t – I’ve been here the whole time. And I listened to your background, and I know things were hard. I know you spent your teenage years on a farm. Dennis, this baby won’t have that life. But I can’t raise it with Mack – he’ll kill me, or the baby, or maybe both of us. So unless you agree to raise it with me, this baby isn’t going to have a chance. It’s not going to have parents. It’s going to grow up cold and alone with no real family.” Dennis bit his lip and let out a loud moan as I stroked his hard cock. “Dennis, please, listen to me,” I begged softly. “You can change everything, right now. All you have to do is listen to me, and let me go. Please don’t make me go back to Mack. I know that he’ll hurt me. I just know he will.”

Chapter Thirteen Dennis “Fine,” I snapped, pushing Anita’s hot little hand away from my pulsing hard-on. “Fine, you fuckin’ happy? I’ll take you somewhere else! Just stop this,” I said firmly. “I don’t have time to deal with your shit anymore.” Anita sank down into the seat. The relief on her face was unmistakable, and she closed her eyes and let out a long sigh. “Oh, Dennis,” she said softly. “Thank you. Thank you so much.” “Try to sleep for a while,” I advised her. “I’m gonna pull out a fuckin’ map and think of somewhere to go.” Anita’s face paled. “I don’t want to go to California,” she said. “No matter where we go, it can’t be there. Dennis, I can’t go back to that state! It makes me think of Mack!” And I can’t go back to that state, either, because your abusive boyfriend is gonna kill me when he realizes what I’ve done, I thought as I reached across Anita’s slender lap and into the glove compartment for a bundle of maps. No matter what we do now, we’re fucked. “Where are you thinking?” Anita ran a hand through her long hair. Her round eyes followed my every move, and suddenly I got the feeling that despite what I’d said about promising to take her somewhere else, she probably didn’t trust me. Not that I could blame her— I was the one who’d kidnapped her. “There’s a town in Utah, St. George, that’s right over the border,” I said. I glanced up at the mile marker signs on the highway. “That looks like it’s about two hours away. Utah sound good?” Anita nodded. Her lips were white and bloodless. “Yeah,” she said softly. “That sounds good. Thank you, Dennis.” “Don’t thank me yet,” I growled. “I haven’t done shit yet. And this car might not even get us to Utah.” I didn’t want to tell Anita, but when I’d taken a look under the hood, I hadn’t liked the way things were going. The car was an old piece of shit – part of me wondered if Mack had done this on purpose. Sent me on a wild goose chase to fetch his old girl with a shitty heap of junk for a ride. But the other part of me didn’t think Mack would have done anything so vicious. I wasn’t even sure I believed Anita about some of the shit she’d been saying. She was desperate and scared, sure. But Mack couldn’t be that bad. Mack was the guy who’d taken me in and given me a chance when none of the other bikers in town would even look at me. He was the guy who’d given me a life as an Iron Titan. I wasn’t about to turn on him just yet. “But we’ll try, right?” Anita’s voice was perky and hopeful. She’d stopped crying, and her cheeks

were beginning to glow pink once more. She was about as beautiful as I’d ever seen her, strapped into the passenger side of the shittiest car I’d driven since I’d patched into the MC. “We’ll try, won’t we? We’ll make it, I promise.” I snorted. “And what are you planning on doing to support us, huh? You gonna work as a waitress? In some diner?” Anita crossed her arms over her chest and looked indignant. “No,” she said. “Well, maybe. I’d do anything, really. I mean, I have to support myself. And the baby.” I licked my lips and sighed. “Anita, don’t worry about that right now,” I told her. I folded the map and stuffed it between the windshield and the dirty dashboard. “I’ll take care of you, okay? Don’t fuckin’ stress about it anymore. You got that?” Anita slouched in the seat. “I can’t let you do that,” she argued. “I’m not going from man to man. I want to do something for me!” “Well, we can figure out what to do after the baby comes,” I said. “You’re gonna make yourself sick if you keep thinking about it now. You got that?” Anita nodded miserably. “Okay,” she said. She ran a hand through her hair and pulled an elastic off her wrist and twisted her hair into a knot at the back of her head. “Fine. Can we just go, already?” As I pulled back on the road and pointed the car in the direction of Utah, I kept sneaking glances over at Anita. She was slouched down in the seat and staring out the window, one hand resting on her belly. I hadn’t noticed it before – definitely not when we were fucking. But I could tell that she was pregnant. Her breasts were swollen and her lips were pink and glistening. She was radiating, glowing. I knew that some of it had to have come from her anxiety, but this was more than that. “We should get there in a couple hours,” I said. She didn’t say anything. The car filled with an uncomfortable silence so I fiddled with the radio knob, tuning to a country station peppered with static. My ass was numb and sore by the time we pulled over the Utah state line. Anita looked at me with wonder. “We’re really doing this, aren’t we?” Anita’s voice was soft and slow, like she’d just woken up. “We’re really going off on our own.” “And we’re gonna raise that kid,” I said, pointed to her stomach. I wanted to talk to her – I wanted to find out everything in her head, what she was really thinking. But she was silent; there was none of the pleading desperation that she’d shown a few hours before. I still wasn’t willing to digest everything she’d told me about Mack. And I had no idea what I was

gonna do about the man himself. He’d kill me if I showed up in Carlsbad without Anita. I thought about what she’d said: lie, and say she’d fled elsewhere. Well, Mack would just put me back on tracking her. And then I’d have to lie again, and this whole damn thing would just get even messier. The town of St. George was slower, sleepier than I’d expected. It was small and picturesque, with a hospital on the outskirts. A few houses, the rocky red cliffs in the background. It looked like small-town America, like the places I’d bounced through as a teenager before settling down on the farm in California. “This is pretty,” Anita said. She rolled down the window and stuck her hand outside, swirling her fingers in the arid air. “Where are we going?” “We’ll find a hotel for the night,” I replied. “And in the morning, I’ll get out there and start looking for a place for us to rent.” “I can pay,” Anita said quickly. She pulled her purse up. “I have a credit card, just in my name. You shouldn’t use your card – Mack could track us here.” I stared at her. “You’re sharper than you look,” I told her, not sure I was able to believe it myself. She blushed and ducked her head. “Thanks,” she said softly. “I tried to get everything in order before I left. You know. So I wouldn’t have to go back for any reason.” She licked her lips and her smile faded, like she’d suddenly just remembered about my trying to kidnap her. I knew right then and there that any intimacy built between us could be torn down in seconds. All she’d have to do was think about the way I tricked her. She could never trust me. I wished I could go back in time and stop myself from ever listening to Mack, but I knew that all I could do now was work on trying to make things as right as possible. I pulled into a local motel, the headlights of the car bouncing over the wall. “You want me to go in?” Anita shook her head. “I’ll go,” she said. “Just give me a second.” She climbed out of the car and stretched her arms high over her head. In the dim light of the parking lot, her body was mostly obscured. But I felt a jolt of hot lust searing through my body when I remembered those sweet curves, how she’d felt like hot silk in my hands. And tonight it might happen again. I couldn’t stop the thoughts from coming, but the first one was like a bolt of lightning that opened the floodgates. Anita sashayed into the office, plucking at the seat of her jeans. I licked my lips as I watched her bend over the counter and ring the service bell. Ten minutes later, Anita opened the passenger door to the car and tossed a key at me. “You’re in twenty-one,” she said. “I’m on the other side of the motel. I’ll see you in the morning.”

I blinked. “We’re not… we’re not staying in the same room?” Anita shook her head. “No,” she said. “We’re not.” She laughed and stood up with her hands on her hips. “Dennis, come on— You kidnapped me! Like I’d fall asleep in front of you.” I climbed out of the car and slammed the door so hard the whole body shook. “Fine,” I snapped. I pulled the key out of her hand. “You better be up by nine. We’ll look for a place to live together. But we’re not staying in this shit heap for more than one night. It looks like it’s fucking filled with roaches.” A small smile played on Anita’s face. “Nine is fine,” she said sweetly. “See you in the morning.”

Chapter Fourteen Dennis In the morning, I was waiting in the parking lot for over an hour before Anita showed. She was right on time, but I hadn’t been able to sleep very well. The motel mattress was lumpy and there was a weird smell in the room. Now that I was outside, I sniffed my arm to make sure it hadn’t managed to transfer to my clothes. It had. Just fucking great. The motel looked even seedier by daylight, if that was possible. The orange and white paint was flaking off the sign and the rest of the parking lot was abandoned. I snickered as I realized that likely, Anita and I were the only two people who had actually spent the night in the Land of Hills Motel. “Hey,” Anita said shortly. “You have your key? I’m going to check out.” I tossed the plastic fob to her and she caught it with ease, then practically skipped over to the office. Even though she’d only been outside for a few seconds, the change in her demeanor was immediate. I could tell that the weight of the world had been lifted off her shoulders, and the dark circles were gone from her eyes. When she came out, she walked over towards the car. “Are we driving today? Or walking?” “I thought I’d walk up there,” I said, pointing down the road. “I looked it up on my phone last night, and there’s a rental agent a mile or so away. Might be nice to stretch my legs.” Anita pursed her lips. For a moment, I thought she was going to bitch about walking. But after a few seconds, she tossed her hair over her shoulder. “Okay, that sounds good,” she said. “I’ll come with you.” It took us about twenty minutes to walk to the rental office. The place hadn’t been around for very long – there were almost no reviews online – and it didn’t even look open. I squinted and leaned against the glass, clearing away the dust with my hands. “Wow,” Anita breathed. “This place is cheap. Look.” She grabbed my wrist and pointed towards a poster on the outside of the window, advertising cottages for only five hundred bucks a month. When she realized she was still holding my wrist, she dropped my hand like it had burned her. “Yeah,” I muttered under my breath. “It’s cheap, all right. So you want me to go in?” Anita nodded nervously. “How are you paying for this?” I sighed and pulled out my checkbook. “I’ve been saving,” I said gruffly. I didn’t want to tell her why.

The money had been put aside for a new bike. “You don’t have to pay,” Anita said. She dug in her purse and pulled out her wallet. “Or at least, let me help.” I pushed her hand to the side until she’d dropped her wallet back into the bag. “Yes, I do,” I growled under my breath. “Remember? I told you I’d take care of you and the baby.” Anita didn’t reply. She pursed her lips and shifted her weight from one foot to the other as I pushed my way into the grimy office. Finally, just when I thought she was going to stay behind, Anita skipped in behind me. There was a girl sitting behind a reception desk that looked like it had been dragged out of a landfill. She barely looked up until we were standing right in front of her. There was an older model of phone clutched in her hand, and when she glanced up I realized she was no older than a teenager. “Hey,” she said shortly. “We’re not open yet. It’s only nine-thirty. We don’t open until ten.” “Well, princess, that’s too bad for you,” I said, leaning over the desk and staring at the screen of her phone. “We just need some help and then we’ll be out of your hair.” I raised my eyebrows at her and glared until the smirk faded from her young, tanned face. “Fine,” she snapped. “I’ll see if my dad is here.” She got up and stalked away from the desk – the effort of her movement was enough to set the decrepit office chair spinning. “Dennis,” Anita hissed. “Don’t be such a dick,” she whispered. “We have to rent from these people. I don’t want them to hate us!” Seconds later, the girl appeared with an older man in tow. He smiled when he saw us. “Sorry about my daughter,” he said. “We’re just happy to have someone in here who wants to rent from us. What are you and your girlfriend looking for?” At the word ‘girlfriend,’ Anita flinched beside me. I kept waiting for her to say something in protest, but she kept her mouth shut. “Something small,” I said. “Like that cottage, posted out front? Is that still available?” The man snorted. “It’s kind of a fixer upper,” he said when he realized I was serious. “But you look like the kind of young kid who could take care of that.” He made a fist with his hand and moved it through the air in some kind of vague gesture. “How long you lookin’ for?” I turned back to Anita and shrugged. She blushed hard. “Um, about five months? Six?” She turned away, whipping her brown hair over one

shoulder. “What she said,” I said. “But that’s at least. We’re probably gonna need it for longer.” Half an hour later, we walked out of the agency with a six-month lease for a small cottage, two sets of keys, and a sense of accomplishment. “So,” Anita said. “What do you wanna do? Go back to the motel and get the car?” “We should probably ditch the car as soon as we can,” I told her. “Mack might be on the lookout. Hell, he maybe even put some kind of tracking device under the hood. That’s real easy to rig up on those older models.” The blood drained from Anita’s face. “You’re kidding,” she said slowly. “I didn’t even think about that.” “Neither did I,” I admitted. I wasn’t sure whether or not Mack would have done something like that. I wanted to believe that before this little incident, he would have had no reason not to trust me unconditionally. Now I was starting to think otherwise. Had he been expecting me to betray him from the very beginning? In the end, we walked back to the motel. I gave Anita a ride to a shopping center and dropped her off at Target. “Buy only the basics,” I warned her. “We don’t want a lot of crap filling this place up. I’m gonna go check it out, and I’ll be back in a couple of hours. Pick out some cleaning shit and whatever you need to cook.” Anita laughed. “I don’t know how to cook,” she said. “I mean, I do,” she added quickly, upon seeing my glare. “But Mack always hated my cooking. He said it tasted like slop.” I coughed. “Well, I ain’t in a position to be that desperate,” I told her drily. “Just get what you need. I’ll be back later.” As soon as I left Anita, the panic set in. What if I went back there and she was gone? What if she was there – with Mack – and they were just waiting for me to come back so he could kick my ass? What if this whole thing had been a trick? But when I remembered Anita’s sheer panic at the way I’d pulled away from Durango with her in tow, I realized that couldn’t possibly happen. Mack was an abusive asshole, and I’d basically stolen his girlfriend. I knew that I should feel nervous about what would happen if he found us, but the adrenaline high was too much. I was almost to the cottage when I got the first phone call. It was still early in the morning – back in California, it would have been earlier still. But the sight of Mack’s name flashing across the screen of

my phone made me feel as though he were right within my field of vision, like he was waiting for me. I pressed ‘ignore’ and kept driving. Ten minutes later, he called again. I didn’t answer that time, either. The inside of the cottage was pretty bad, although not as gnarly as I’d been expecting. It was dirty and dusty, and there was a lot of furniture piled into one corner. I managed to extract a wicker loveseat and a set of couches. There were even cushions; dirty ones, but cushions all the same. There were two bedrooms. One was about the size of a closet, the other only marginally larger. It would have had a lot of charm had it not been covered in dirt from decades of use. I got to work hauling furniture around and clearing the rest out into the backyard. Real white trash, I thought with a wry grin as I worked. Just like what I’m used to. When I went to check my phone for the time, my heart sank. Mack had called over fifteen times, and I had a bunch of voicemails waiting for me. Instead of listening to them, I called him and held the phone up to my ear. Mack picked up on the first ring. “Where the fuck are you?” Mack hissed into the phone. I could picture his face in my mind, angry and contorted with rage. “Where the fuck ARE you, asshole?” “I’m still in Durango,” I lied. “I haven’t been able to find your girl since yesterday. I’m starting to think she must’ve taken off for somewhere else. Maybe she’s goin’ back to California, Mack. Maybe she misses you and feels bad about leaving.” “Fuck that,” Mack growled. “She wouldn’t come back here. She’s a little bitch is what she is, Dennis. If you don’t fuckin’ find her, I’ll come out there and do it myself.” There was a pause. “And you can fuckin’ forget about coming back to the Iron Titans if that’s the case. I don’t need no useless members of my club.” I sighed. “Mack, I swear to fuckin’ God, I’ll get her,” I promised. Wait, how did this happen? How did I just lie? Three times? Fuck! “You’d better,” Mack growled. “You better get back here soon, too. We’re goin’ riding next week, and if you’re not there, you’re out of the club. Back on probation, until you can prove yourself.” “Mack, I’m trying as hard as I fuckin’ can,” I lied, gritting my teeth. “I’m not going to let you down.” There was an ominous pause and finally, Mack coughed. “Don’t fuckin’ think about letting me down,” he repeated. “You got anything you wanna tell me, Dennis?” “Yeah,” I said drily. “I got that.”

“Good,” Mack said. “I expect you home with the bitch in a couple of days. Find her and bring her back, you hear me?” He laughed and for the first time, I realized how creepy his laugh could sound. “She’s gonna get what’s comin’ to her.” “I got it,” I repeated. “I gotta go, Mack. I’m losin’ service.” I hung up before Mack could reply. My heart was thudding in my chest. I had no intention – absolutely none – of returning Anita back to Carlsbad. I shivered when I realized that not once had Mack actually referred to her by name. After that, I couldn’t stay in the cottage anymore. I had to go get Anita and make sure she was okay. Seeing her waiting outside of the Target was enough to make me forget all about Mack. She looked gorgeous. She’d bought some cheap clothes – jeans with strategic rips in the knees and a faux-vintage Rolling Stones t-shirt – and she looked relaxed and happy, her sunglasses pushed on top of her head. Her brown hair was loose and the sun brought out the white-blonde streaks that she’d always worn. “Hey,” she said shortly when I pulled up. “What happened? You were gone forever.” “Sorry,” I grumbled. “Come on. What all did you get?” “Cleaning shit, mostly,” Anita said. “They didn’t have a ton of food. You mind stopping at the grocery store on the way home?” She looked into my eyes and I felt a shiver of something strange within my body. “What is it?” “Nothing,” I lied. “Come on. Get in the car and let’s go.” Anita chattered the whole way. She walked through the aisles of the grocery store, talking my ear off about how she’d finally felt the baby kick that morning, and how she was going to have to start buying maternity clothes. “And Target is hiring,” she added, after a brief pause in the conversation. “I think I’ll probably try to get a job there. That wouldn’t be the worst thing, would it?” I shook my head. “No,” I said. “But how you planning on getting there? We’re ditching the car, remember?” “I thought I could buy another one,” Anita said shyly. She leaned over and picked a package of frozen chicken breasts from the freezer compartment. “I mean, I have that credit card and all. And we’ll need a car,” she added, glancing up at me meaningfully. “I mean, once the baby comes. Plus, how am I supposed to get to the hospital?” I sighed. “You’re right,” I told her. “I’ll look into it later. Just get your shit and hurry up.” “I’m ready,” Anita replied. “We can go home now.”

Chapter Fifteen Anita The first couple of days were weird. Like, really weird. Even though I’d been living with Mack for years, I wasn’t really used to spending that much time with him. Mack’s work with the Iron Titans had kept him busy most of the time – he was usually only home at night. He’d stumble in around one or two in the morning, already drunk, get drunker, and then pass out. I never minded because he couldn’t hit me when he was asleep. But being with Dennis was different. Sure, he drank and smoked just like Mack did. But it had a different feeling to it. Dennis was abrasive and rough, just like Mack, but he never laid a hand on me. At least, not since he’d kidnapped me. Sometimes I found myself forgetting how the hell we’d wound up in St. George. I knew that was dangerous. I couldn’t form any kind of attachment to Dennis. I thought we’d maybe wind up good friends at some point. But I wasn’t sure I could ever laugh and forget all about what had happened. I applied for a job at Target and they actually hired me. I wore a loose shirt to the interview, but my baby bump was growing quickly. I knew I wouldn’t be able to hide my pregnancy for too long. But Target had decent benefits – even health insurance! And even though it sucked working in a shitty department store, it was still better than sitting at home all day. Unlike me, Dennis hadn’t ever finished high school. But in a place like St. George, Utah, that didn’t matter all that much. He put a few ads up in town and on Craigslist, and soon he was working the odd job or two. He did some mechanical work for a neighbor, cleared a yard for another neighbor. I was impressed. I guess, based on Mack, I thought all tough guys wanted to be lazy. Dennis was really changing my impression of men, at least the kind of men I’d always been attracted to. There were two bedrooms in the cottage, and I loved my room. It was the first room I’d had to myself since I’d lived with my parents, and I honestly thought it was perfect. It was small, sure, and the bed was uncomfortable. But it was mine, all mine, and there was a lock on the door. I started cutting pictures from magazines and making collages on the wall, and soon it felt like home, like a sanctuary. Dennis was good about never coming in. He’d knock on the door sometimes, to tell me that he was going to the store or whatever, but he never even put his hand on the damn doorknob. Dennis’ room was across the hall, and I didn’t go in there, either. He left the door open during the day but I’d usually close it as soon as he’d left for whatever job he was doing that morning. I didn’t like seeing his clothes, scattered all over the floor. I didn’t like seeing the bed, still dented and creased from where he had slept. But most of all, I couldn’t stand the smell. The smell of man, pure and raw. It turned me on every time I caught a whiff, and I couldn’t have that. Not now, not with a baby on the way. Not with the man who had literally kidnapped me. Dennis was good to his word about buying a car. He went out that first day and came home with a

shitty, rusted pickup truck. I laughed when I sat in it for the first time. There was a small hole in the floorboards, and I could see the road beneath us as we drove through town. It was a stick shift, and Dennis was real surprised when he found out I knew how to drive a manual. Still, I didn’t like driving the truck. The clutch had to be double-pumped every time, and I wasn’t strong enough to do it without making my arm sore for the rest of the day. Aside from the tattoos and biker clothes, Dennis and I were starting to look like real citizens of St. George, real people from small-town America. Before I knew it, we’d been living there for a month. Time was flying by – every day seemed shorter than the last. And every day, my pregnancy seemed like more and more of a burden. I felt gypped. I always heard how pregnancy made women glowing and happy, how they felt naturally blessed and radiant. I didn’t feel any of that shit. I was sick in the mornings and evenings. My feet were so swollen I couldn’t wear any shoes aside from moccasins that I bought on sale at Target. My belly swelled and my breasts were uncomfortably sore. They were bigger, but they hurt so much that I couldn’t even face the spray in the shower. The droplets of water felt like icy pellets, raining down on my sensitive skin. Dennis didn’t say much, either. He’d glance up at me every now and then, but we fell into a pattern of not really talking. I didn’t mind. I started reading a lot – baby magazines and baby books from the library. I didn’t really have any idea of what to expect. I’d been an only child; I’d never really been around kids before. And the more I read, the more overwhelmed I felt. I didn’t really know how much stuff I’d need for a baby. The anecdotes in the books were terrifying, too. All these women talking about how having a baby completely ruined their sleep cycle, their sex life, and their body. Of course, all of the cautionary tales were bookended with: “But I’ve never been happier! My baby is such a joy!” After a while, it all seemed like the same shit. All of these happy white girls who’d had kids with their college boyfriend-turned-husband. All of these happy couples adding to their family, talking about how to find a nanny who’d fit in with everyone. “You all right?” Dennis’ voice made me jump. I gasped and blinked, clapping a hand to my chest. My heart was already racing – the Anita from months ago would have laughed at how little it took to unsettle me now. “Sorry,” I said, blushing as I stood up and put the baby book down. “Just a little sick of these vanilla bitches talking about coordinating nursery colors.” Dennis laughed. “What, you’re not painting the room in pink and blue with little elephants everywhere?” I rolled my eyes. “For one thing, the baby will be sleeping in my room,” I said. The air between us turned awkward and I swallowed hard. “And another thing, where the hell are the damn books for knocked-up white trash girls, huh? They don’t tell you where you’re supposed to put your nipple rings when you breastfeed!” I laughed at my own joke. “Or what to do if you have to run because your baby

daddy is coming after you.” Dennis didn’t laugh. “You’ll figure it out,” he said. “Anita, you doin’ okay?” I nodded. “Yeah,” I said, after a beat. “I am. I think we’re doing real well out here. I mean, I never would have expected to live someplace like St. George. But it ain’t all bad, is it?” Dennis shook his head. “There’s some good work, at least.” “Good.” I nodded. I felt awkward – this was probably the longest conversation we’d had in months. We didn’t even eat dinner together. If I was home early enough, I usually cooked and then put Dennis’ portion in the fridge or left it in the oven to keep it warm. Dennis wouldn’t eat until later, in front of the television. Sometimes he’d even fall asleep there, right on the couch, like an old man. “Hey,” Dennis said shortly. “You call the hospital yet? You probably need to have a check-up, real soon.” “Yeah.” I shifted uncomfortably in the chair. Sitting for any amount of time was enough to make my ass go numb. “I mean, I did call them last week. They want me to come in for a check-up in a couple of days.” “Want me to drive you?” “Sure,” I said. “If you’re not working.” “I can rearrange shit if I have to,” Dennis replied. He turned towards the door and took a step, then turned back towards me. “Hey, Anita, I hope everything goes well at the hospital. If you need anything, let me know.” And before I had a chance to thank him, he was gone. I was pretty surprised by the change in Dennis’ attitude. He’d gone from only caring about me as some kind of package to be delivered, to a man who actually seemed to care about my wellbeing and the wellbeing of my child. Well, technically our child, I guess. After all, he had agreed to be the father. “Dennis,” I said sharply, standing up. “Wait.” I heard heavy footsteps in the hallway and just like that, he was back in the doorway. There was obvious concern on his face. “What? What’s wrong? Are you okay? Are you in pain?” “No,” I said. “Um, I want to tell you something, okay?” “Okay.” Dennis’ forehead creased and he crossed his arms in front of his powerful, muscular chest.

When I’d first seen him, Dennis had been cut. But now, doing manual labor, he looked positively hunky. His biceps were the size of small tree trunks, and his pecs showed easily under the thin shirt he was wearing. “I was pregnant before— Remember? I told you that,” I began, lowering myself back down into the chair and wincing. “In the car, I think.” Dennis nodded. “Yeah,” he said. “Did you have an abortion? What happened? You just said you lost it.” “I was about four months pregnant,” I said. “A little bit less than where I am now. And Mack knew – he was even kind of excited about being a dad. He used to talk about what it would be like to have a son.” Dennis didn’t reply. He stepped over the threshold of the room and leaned against the wall. “And things were going okay. I mean, about as well as they could have been going,” I said slowly. Remembering this was painful, and for a moment I almost wanted to tell him ‘never mind.’ But I knew I had to come out and say it. “What happened?” “Mack got real drunk one night and came home early. Said that one of the guys had made a joke about me. Well, obviously, that meant I’d been fucking around on him.” I swallowed and took a deep breath. “I didn’t know anything about it. I couldn’t have even told you what the guy looked like. But his word meant more to Mack’s than my word did, and before long, Mack decided that I had a bastard in my belly. He chased me around the house, throwing things at me. I tripped and fell over, and Mack started kicking me in the stomach and punching me. I yelled for him to stop, but he wouldn’t quit until my nose was so full of blood that I had to breathe through my mouth.” Dennis sucked in a gulp of air. “Jesus Christ,” he muttered. “You fuckin’ with me?” “No,” I said softly. Although I’d managed to stay calm through most of the story, I couldn’t stop the fresh tears from welling up in my eyes. “He kept kicking me and punching me until I passed out from the pain. And when I woke up, there was blood everywhere. Between my legs, on the floor, in my hair.” “Holy shit.” Dennis buried his face in his hands. “That’s fucked up, Anita.” “I went to the hospital in the morning,” I said softly. “As soon as I woke up. Mack was gone, and I called a cab to come get me. The driver almost didn’t want me in the back because of all the blood, but I told him that I’d pay extra. I had to make sure that my baby was safe. But when I got to the hospital, they told me I’d lost it.” “Fuck,” Dennis muttered. “Are you okay?”

I looked up at him as a tear rolled down my cheek. “I don’t know,” I whispered. “I really don’t know.”

Chapter Sixteen Dennis After Anita told me about Mack beating her until she miscarried, I lost all the respect that I’d had for my former boss. I couldn’t believe that a man like Mack could have been so cruel. He’d always been tough, and I never would have crossed him, but I’d always thought that his bark was worse than his bite. I thought he was an insecure man who wanted to do whatever he could to keep hold of his girl. But God, I’d never been more wrong in my life. Mack was deranged – a real psychopath of a man. I knew then, in my gut, that I’d made the right decision and agreed to hole up with Anita until the baby was born. No wonder she’d been so fuckin’ terrified when she found out that she was pregnant. I could even begin to understand what made her go to Planned Parenthood in the first place. I drove Anita to the hospital for her checkup. She was officially starting the last trimester of her pregnancy. She’d gotten bigger, and the belly suited her. Her skin looked good, too. Even though Anita said she felt miserable and sick all of the time, I thought pregnancy made her look even more gorgeous than before. The thought of someone hurting a pregnant woman like Anita – especially to the point of losing the baby – made me sick. I couldn’t believe Mack had been such a monster. We didn’t talk much in the truck on the way over there. That wasn’t anything new – it’s not like Anita and I were real big on talking to each other. But even the silence was starting to feel different between us now. More comfortable, like we were friends who’d talked so much that we no longer had anything left to talk about. “I should be done in an hour or so,” Anita said as we pulled up to the St. George Regional Medical Center. “You can stay. It doesn’t matter.” “Do you want me to come in with you? Are they gonna do one of those things where you see the baby?” A smile flitted across Anita’s face. “I hope so,” she said. “But no, thanks. I’m fine. I’ll see you later, Dennis. I’ll call you if anything happens.” She hopped down from the truck and slammed the door once her feet were on the ground. “Bye!” “Bye,” I echoed, even though I knew she couldn’t hear me. Anita strode into the hospital without looking back once, and I pushed the truck into gear and slowly pulled out of the parking lot. I don’t know where the idea came from, but it suddenly seemed like a good idea to cook dinner for Anita. I didn’t have a lot of experience cooking. About the most I could do was heat up water without managing to burn it. And while Anita had downplayed her culinary abilities, I didn’t think her cooking was that bad. I thought it was overall more likely that Mack had just told her she was a shitty cook in order to drag her self-esteem down even further.

There was a grocery store about a mile from the hospital, and I parked in the lot and strolled in. The produce section was full of housewives wearing sweatpants with their hair piled on top of their heads in messy twists. All of the women around here were so plain – there was no one young and fiery, like Anita. I didn’t really know much about Utah before we’d moved here, but it was a really religious area. Lots of people who got married before they’d even finished high school, and had a passel of kids before twenty-one. I couldn’t believe it. I thanked my lucky stars that I hadn’t grown up in a place exactly like this. If I had, I’d probably be divorced, with ten kids, all sucking child support money out of what little paychecks I could scrape together. Just having one kid was going to be pricey enough; I didn’t know how we’d afford it when it came time for the baby to be born. But right now, we were doin’ okay. I figured that maybe after shopping for groceries, I could stop by the store and pick up some stuff for the baby. Anita had been shopping at Target with her employee discount and bringing home various things, but the crib hadn’t been built yet and I knew she’d need some kind of a changing table. Wandering through the aisles of the store, I realized I had no idea what I was going to make. My foster mother outside of Carlsbad, used to make pasta a lot. She hadn’t been a great cook, but I figured it couldn’t be that hard. I bought a couple boxes of spaghetti, jars of sauce, and on the way towards the checkout lines, grabbed a loaf of French bread. Anita’s gonna be happy, I thought as I paid for everything. At least, I hope she will. I still hadn’t ever really apologized to her for kidnapping her. I knew that I should, but every time I thought about what to say, the words didn’t seem good enough. It wasn’t like I could just come right out and say, Hey, sorry that I stole you and almost returned you to your abusive psycho of an ex! I’d only spent twenty minutes in the grocery store, so I drove over to the local discount furniture place and picked out a changing table. The salesman told me that it was real easy to assemble – the kind of thing I could do in my sleep – and I grinned as I paid. I wanted to impress her, but so far, I didn’t have any ideas beyond cooking and trying to build shit. I mean, I’m not really a romance kind of guy. It wasn’t like I was going to write her a poem, or some shit like that. She’d already fucked me, so I had a feeling she wasn’t really the flowers-and-candy type of girl. Still, though, I wanted to do something nice once in a while. Anita was waiting in front of the hospital for me with her hand resting on her belly. She smiled when she saw the truck. “What’s that?” Anita pointed to the box in the bed. “Did you get something?” “A changing table,” I said gruffly. “And some stuff for dinner.” “Oh,” Anita said. She twisted up her mouth. “Dennis, I don’t really feel like cooking tonight. I was hoping we could just order something. Would that be okay?”

I laughed as we pulled away from the hospital. “I’m cooking,” I told her. “Or at least I’m gonna try. I hope it doesn’t suck.” Anita’s eyes widened but she didn’t say anything. “Oh,” she finally said. Her cheeks were pink but I kept my eyes on the road. “That’s nice of you.” “I wanted to do something nice.” I cringed. I sounded like a goddamn after-school special. “I hope it’s alright with you.” “The appointment went well,” Anita said. When we were at a traffic light, she passed some paper into my hand. “That’s the baby. Growing right along.” “Boy or girl?” “They think it’s a boy,” Anita replied. She toyed with a strand of her brown hair, pursing her lips and running the hair over her mouth. “But I want it to be a girl. It feels like a girl. Does that make sense?” She blushed again. “It probably sounds dumb. Forget I said anything.” “It makes sense,” I lied. “I mean, not really. But women’s intuition and all that. I bet you’re probably right.” I rolled my eyes. “And in sixteen years, I’ll be beating the boys off with a stick. I bet she’ll be a looker if she gets any of your genes.” Anita fell silent. I could tell she was thinking about Mack again. “Anita, don’t worry about him,” I said, reaching over and touching her shoulder. She didn’t recoil from me – not this time. Instead, she looked down at my hand and then sighed. “I can’t help it,” she said. “He’s in my head all the time. I hate him so much! I wish that I’d never met him, or that I’d at least listened to my parents when they told me he was a bad guy. I mean, I had no idea that shit was gonna turn out like this. I didn’t think he’d be that bad! I knew he was kind of a jerk, but I always thought he loved me.” I kept my eyes on the road and finally pulled my hand away from Anita’s shoulder, resting it on the steering wheel. “I don’t think Mack knows what it means to love something,” I said quietly. “Or someone. I think all he knows is himself. He’s selfish and he’s used to getting whatever he wants. And that probably passes for love, at least by his definition of the word.” Anita sighed. “I’m going to take a nap when we get home,” she said. “I didn’t sleep well last night.” As soon as I pulled into the driveway, Anita hopped out of the truck. She didn’t even wait for me to turn the engine off. She darted inside and by the time I was in the cottage, her door was closed and the lights were dark below the door. Anita slept for most of the afternoon. At some point, after a couple of beers, I remembered the

groceries and the changing table in the truck. I didn’t wanna put the table together right then and there – I thought I’d probably make too much noise. I had no idea whether or not Anita was really sleeping, but it wasn’t something I wanted to press. Either way, she wanted to be alone. She had made that much clear. I put a pot of water to boil on the stove and then dumped the pasta in. It couldn’t be that hard, right? The box said to cook the spaghetti for six to seven minutes. I stared at it for a second – the noodles were still stiff, and they didn’t seem to be softening in the pot. Finally, I rolled my eyes and walked into the living room. Cooking couldn’t be that much of a pain in the ass – so many people did it. I figured there had to be something there. When Anita came out of her room ten minutes later, I jumped up in surprise. “Shit!” “What?” She frowned, rubbing her eyes. She did look tired, but the dark circles under her eyes were starting to fade. “What’s wrong?” “Nothing,” I muttered, standing up and darting into the kitchen. I groaned when I saw the pot on the stove – the water was boiling over and steam was rising from the pot at an alarming rate. Quickly, I grabbed the handles and immediately dropped the pot down a second later – the thing was burning hot! Screeching, I looked around for something to use as a buffer. Finally, I saw a dish towel on the table and grabbed it, wrapping it around the pot and dumping the water in the sink. The pasta went with it, in a big gluey lump. “It wasn’t supposed to look like that,” I muttered as I turned on the water. “What the fuck did I do wrong?” Behind me, there was a bright, girlish giggle. “You didn’t stir it, did you?” Anita walked up to me with an amused smile on her face. “You’re supposed to stir the pasta, so it doesn’t clump like that.” “Thanks for telling me now,” I said sarcastically. “I was just trying to make a nice dinner for us.” “Let’s order pizza instead,” Anita said. She winked at me. “I told you, I don’t really feel like cooking tonight.”

Chapter Seventeen Anita Twenty minutes later, there was a knock at the door. I didn’t get up from the wicker loveseat as Dennis climbed over piles of boxes and opened the door. My heart skipped a beat – I knew it was probably just the pizza guy, but I couldn’t stop thinking about what would happen if Mack showed up, ready to kill the both of us. No— The three of us. “Here you go,” Dennis said. He set the steaming box down beside me. It smelled delicious, like greasy, chewy, perfect cheese and salty pepperoni. I started drooling before Dennis could even open the box. “Anything else? You want something to drink?” “Do we have any juice left?” I started to stand up but Dennis put his hand on my chest and gently pushed me back down. “What?” “Let me get it,” Dennis said. “You stay here.” He loped into the kitchen and I listened to the sound of the fridge open and slam shut. When he emerged a few seconds later, he had a beer and a glass full of juice for me. Gratefully, I took the cup from his hand. “Thanks,” I muttered. “I’m sorry if I was weird earlier, in the car.” Dennis shook his head. “Don’t apologize,” he told me. “What’s bothering you?” I ran a hand through my hair – it looked awful. I hadn’t had it highlighted since I’d left Carlsbad. But somehow, I knew Dennis didn’t care. It’s not like he was with me because he wanted to be. “Do you think people are born bad?” “What?” Dennis screwed up his face. “Why? That’s a weird thing to ask, Anita.” “I know,” I said softly. I took a piece of pizza and nibbled at the tip. It was just as good as I’d wanted it to be, and yet somehow I wasn’t as hungry as I’d been five minutes before. “I just…” I paused, setting the slice back down in the box. “I worry about the baby. I worry that it’s going to come out evil, hating me. Or even worse, just like Mack.” “Well, you think it’s a girl, right? “I don’t know,” I admitted. “That’s what I thought. At least until that ultrasound. Are those things ever wrong?” Dennis sighed. He raked a hand through his messy dark hair and flopped down next to me. We were so close that I could smell his manly scent of cologne and beer, and suddenly, more than anything, I wanted him to pull me into his arms and tell me that it would be okay. But I knew that would never

happen. He never touched me. “I guess they might be wrong,” he said. “I mean, how many times do you hear people sayin’ they’re having one thing and then they pop out the other?” He snorted. “Babies all look the same, anyway.” I laughed. “Not between the legs, they don’t,” I countered. “And I wouldn’t really care if this one was a boy. But I really wanted a girl, and…” I trailed off. Heat rose to my cheeks and I coughed. “I mean, I was thinking, if the baby’s a girl… It can’t possibly be like Mack. Is that stupid or what?” “It’s not stupid,” Dennis said. “I know why you’re worried, Anita. But you gotta stop, especially for the sake of the baby. You ain’t doin’ yourself any favors by stressing like this. Just take a deep breath, okay?” He took a long swig of his beer. “God,” I said. “I’d do anything to have a drink. Just one. I feel like that would help me.” Dennis laughed drily, then finished his beer and tossed the bottle over his shoulder. “You try that once, and I’ll lock you in the room for the rest of your pregnancy,” he said. “You need to give that baby a good start. Getting drunk isn’t gonna do that.” “I know,” I said, blushing even more deeply. “I just miss being able to escape.” Dennis locked eyes with me and I shivered. This was the most openly that we’d conversed in months, if not ever. “You’ll be okay,” he said. His voice was strangely calming. “Everything’s gonna be fine, Anita. I promise. Things will work out. You got that?” “It just seems so impossible,” I said softly. “I don’t know how we’re going to manage. My life is nothing like the lives of those mothers I read about. I never went to college! I don’t know how to take care of a baby! What if the kid grows up and hates me and makes the same mistakes I made with my parents? And they were good parents, too!” “Did they kick you out when they found out about Mack?” Shame and guilt rushed through my brain and I had to drop my gaze. “No,” I said softly. “They always told me they’d love and support me. They didn’t expect me to keep going with Mack, I guess. They always told me I could come home when all of that was over. I don’t think they expected I’d say no.” “Well, why not? Why didn’t you back to them when things got rough? After your last pregnancy?” Dennis rubbed his chin with one hand. His stubble was growing longer and darker by the day. I wouldn’t have admitted it, but I loved the way he looked with a little bit of a beard. “I was ashamed,” I said. I twisted my hands in my lap. “I didn’t want them to know what Mack had done. It just seemed easier to stay. I mean, I’d been gone for so long that I didn’t know how I could’ve fixed things. I knew they’d want to know all about where I’d gone and what I’d done, and I just didn’t feel like having that talk with them. I didn’t want them to know how bad things had gotten.”

“Well, do you think you could patch shit up with them? Like, what if I took you to see them, after we had the kid? You wouldn’t have to tell them that it wasn’t mine.” I considered the offer for a second. It was tempting. But I couldn’t face the idea of seeing my parents, not after I’d abandoned them for so long. I wanted more than anything for my mom to hug me and sit with her arm around me. But I knew that I’d thrown their love right back in their faces. And if I were them, I’d never forgive me. “I can’t,” I said softly. I closed the lid of the pizza box. “I’m sorry. I’m not as hungry as I thought I would be.” “It’s fine,” Dennis said. “Don’t worry about, Anita.” He took the pizza into the kitchen and put it in the fridge. When he came back, he handed me another glass of juice. “Just try to stay hydrated. You wanna watch TV?” “Sure.” Dennis flipped on the television set and surfed through channels until he came to a rerun of an old movie. I wasn’t even paying attention – after only a few seconds, my eyes glazed over. But I wasn’t tired, either. I couldn’t stop thinking about my parents, and how much I missed them. “Maybe I could write them a letter,” I said. “Maybe if I didn’t tell them where I’d gone, that would be okay.” Dennis thought for a moment. “But how would they write you back?” “I could get a P.O. box.” Dennis laughed. “Not here, you couldn’t. Don’t you know how easy it would be to find you here? There’s like, twenty people in this town. Maybe fifty, tops.” I laughed. “Come on,” I said, playfully nudging him with my foot. “You know there’s a few thousand. That’s what the sign said when we first drove here.” Dennis caught my foot in his hands. I giggled for a moment as his fingers stroked the sole. Then his touch relaxed and he began massaging my foot with both hands. It felt so good that I moaned and arched my back, throwing my head back onto the couch. My feet had been aching for months – it seemed like they were more swollen with each day – and Dennis’ touch was exactly what I’d been craving. I hadn’t even been able to put it into words how much I wanted him to touch me. But now that his hands were on me, I couldn’t push him away. “Is this okay?” Dennis kneaded my foot with his fingers and thumb, massaging it all over. He stretched my toes one by one until I was moaning softly with pleasure. I kicked my other foot into his lap and immediately felt his warm hands move towards it.

“That feels really good,” I mumbled, closing my eyes. “Thanks.” “Shh, relax,” Dennis said. The living room fell silent. The sensations zooming up and down my legs felt nothing less than heavenly, and I stretched my legs and wiggled my toes, spreading them out so Dennis could rub between them. When he began massaging the area beneath my big toe, I let out a cry of delight. “That feels incredible,” I moaned. “God, don’t stop. Please don’t stop.” Dennis chuckled. He lifted one of my feet up to his mouth and blew on the delicate skin. His warm breath sent shivers up my leg. I felt a hot, throbbing sensation between my thighs and I shifted on the couch, trying to ignore it. But the more Dennis worked at my sore, swollen feet, the more aroused I felt myself becoming. It was an incredible, delicious sensation that flooded my body with a sensual heat. “Dennis, god,” I groaned, hauling myself into a sitting position and slowly tugging my feet away from his wonderful hands. “I believe you’re a good mechanic,” I said slowly. My skin was flushed and my heart was thudding in my chest. “I mean, god, that was incredible.” Dennis grinned. “You didn’t have to move,” he said slowly. “You feelin’ okay?” I wasn’t feeling okay. I wasn’t even feeling remotely close to okay. I was sick and stressed out and tired of being pregnant and tired of running. But I had months left to go, and I knew that my anxiety about Mack likely wouldn’t fade for years. After all, he’d done an irreparable amount of damage to me. And that wasn’t even counting the baby. What if she came out screaming at me? What if she came out and told me I was a bad person because I couldn’t make things work with her real father? “Dennis, do you ever think about your parents?” “I don’t have parents,” Dennis replied sharply. He reached over and grabbed my glass of juice, sucking it down his throat. “You know what I mean,” I said softly. “Your real parents. Your biological parents. The people who created you.” Dennis shook his head. “They didn’t want me. I don’t think they’re really my parents,” he said slowly. “Just because they donated their DNA doesn’t really mean shit, Anita. They’re just deadbeats. Hell, I don’t even know if they’re still alive, or where they’re from.” “What about your foster parents?” Dennis snorted. “The only people who really did me right were those old farmers outside of Carlsbad. They at least taught me how to survive in this shithole of a world. And when I was eighteen, they paid me a little money to help out around the farm.”

“Do you ever miss them?” “Nothin’ to miss,” Dennis said. He rubbed his hands together. “Nothin’ to miss at all. Why? Somethin’ on your mind? Besides the obvious, at least.” I swallowed hard. “I want to be a good mom, but I’m worried that no matter what I do, the baby’s going to fall into the same cycle of awful that I had to deal with. I mean, my parents loved me. They were good parents – they always bought me whatever I needed, but they didn’t spoil me. And they let me have friends and sleepovers and stuff. And I was so sheltered until I met Mack! I thought I knew everything, just because I thought I was in love! How the hell do you think I’ll be able to keep my kid from doing the same thing?” Dennis licked his lips. “You ever think about why you felt that way?” “Yeah,” I said slowly. “Because my parents seemed so bored together. I mean, sure, they had things in common. But I never really thought they were in love, you know? It didn’t even occur to me how they felt or what they did when I wasn’t around. I didn’t see them as a couple. I saw them as my parents.” “And you thought you knew better than they did, because of how love felt when you first experienced it?” I smiled sadly. “That must be it,” I said softly. “I never meant to do that. I just… I wanted excitement! I didn’t want the life my parents had planned out for me! And I know that makes me sound like a brat, but I didn’t want to be bored and complacent and living in some suburb!” “I think it makes you real relatable,” Dennis said. “I knew you were always a tough girl, Anita.” He reached forward and slowly stroked the tribal design I had tattooed on my forearm. “You’re a real biker’s girl, that’s for sure.” I shivered. Just Dennis’ finger on my arm was enough to turn me on even more. “I guess,” I said slowly. “I never really thought about it before.” “You’re beautiful, Anita,” Dennis said. I laughed. “I definitely don’t feel that way,” I said with a snort. “I feel bloated and fat and awful right now.” Dennis reached out and touched my belly. At first, I wanted to pull away from his touch. But his hand was warm and the callouses on his skin made the feel of his hand even more sensual. I moaned softly as he stroked my belly, slipping down between my legs. Without even thinking of what I was doing, I leaned forward and pressed my mouth against his. He tasted like cigarettes and beer and pizza and I closed my eyes, kissing him gently. Dennis stayed frozen for a moment, then wrapped his arms around my waist and pulled me closer. Sensations of pleasure and arousal shot through my body and I moaned softly into Dennis’ mouth as his tongue

slipped between my lips. Scooting closer to Dennis on the couch was an awkward business. My body felt like it was all limbs and belly, flailing and gawky. But as I moved closer, Dennis lifted me into the air with ease. I let out a gasp as he pulled me down on his lap. We kissed again, our mouths adjusting to each other, and I moaned as Dennis’ hands slid up my shirt and stroked my nipples through the soft fabric. I was dying of lust. Ever since I’d gotten pregnant, I’d been hornier than ever. The anxiety I’d felt ever since Dennis and I had settled in St. George mingled with my arousal and made me feel like I was going to die unless I got laid, right now. Eagerly, I slid my hands under Dennis’ shirt and caressed his rock-hard muscles. It was hard not to gasp at the sensation of his body so close to my own. His pectoral muscles bulged as I stroked them, and Dennis nibbled and sucked on my lower lip as our bodies moved closer together with each passing second. I spread my legs and pressed my body towards Dennis, wrapping my thighs around his waist. There was a hard bulge at the fork of his legs and I blushed with shame, thinking of the wanton way I’d rubbed him in the car that day. That had been a game, a way to save my life. But this was different – I wanted this. Desperately. “Anita,” Dennis moaned softly into my ear as I moved my mouth from his and began kissing a hot, wet trail down the skin of his neck. Dennis’ stubble was soft against my mouth and I tasted him, eagerly lapping at the salty skin until my mouth was filled with his personal taste. Dennis slid his hands down my belly and tugged at the hem of my shirt. For a moment, I wanted to resist; he hadn’t seen me shirtless since I’d gained all this weight, and I didn’t want him to find me unattractive. Then I realized that I wanted to be naked with him so badly that it didn’t matter. All that mattered was us, being close and intimate. I closed my eyes and held my breath as Dennis lifted my shift over my head. The sensation of the cool living room air on my bare belly was heavenly, and Dennis leaned forward, nuzzling at my breasts through the thin bra I wore. My nipples were painfully stiff and the sensation of his lips against them – even through the fabric – was enough to turn me on beyond belief. “God, Dennis,” I moaned softly. “Please suck on my nipples, please!” Dennis reached behind me and unclasped my bra. I held my arms in place so that the cups sagged low, exposing my areolas. Dennis leaned forward and gently kissed my collarbone. He began trailing down, planting a hot trail of kisses all over my bare skin until his face was buried between my breasts. His hot breath tickled my skin and I moaned softly as he tugged the bra away from my body, tossing it over my shoulder and wrapping his arm tightly around my back. I groaned with pleasure as Dennis shifted his hips. I slid forward in his lap, feeling the bulge between his legs rub against my crotch. “I love your tits,” Dennis murmured. He licked one of my breasts, then gently took the nipple into his mouth and began to suck. When I felt his teeth scraping the sensitive skin, I howled with pleasure and threw my head back, closing my eyes. There were fireworks of pleasure going off in my brain, and

each second only made them more intense. As our bodies moved together, I groaned and ground my hips on Dennis’ lap. His mouth left my nipple and I cried out – the cool air against my hot, wet skin was startling. But as soon as I had opened my mouth to start begging Dennis once more, his fingers began rubbing my wet nipple, pinching it softly and rolling it around until it was hard as a pebble. His mouth latched onto my other nipple, and between the sensation of his tongue and his fingers, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. “You feel amazing,” I gasped, barely able to form words. Dennis slid his hand down my round belly and fumbled with the snap of my maternity jeans. Eagerly, I bucked my hips forward and arched my back to allow him better access. Dennis gently pushed me off his lap until I was standing. He leaned forward and began kissing and sucking at my nipple once more. With his hand, he unzipped my jeans and I wriggled my hips as he tugged them down my legs. As I stepped up to kick them to the side, Dennis ran his hand up the inside of my bare thigh and gently rubbed my soaking pussy through the thin, flimsy material of my panties. “You smell so fucking good,” Dennis groaned. He pulled my hips towards him and lowered his head, kissing his way down my belly, until he was right in front of my crotch. My cheeks flamed with embarrassment as Dennis nuzzled me through my damp panties. When he slid a finger inside the waistband and slowly began to tug them down my legs, I had to fight the urge to push him away— Not because I didn’t want him, I just couldn’t believe that he still found me sexy. I was six months pregnant! It wasn’t like I was some gorgeous young virgin. “Dennis,” I groaned slowly. He gestured for me to step out of my panties and tossed them to the side. He put his hands on my hips and pulled me forward. “What are you doing?” “Making you feel good,” Dennis whispered in my ear, once I was back on his lap. My legs were spread and I was straddling his lap, facing him. I felt so exposed, even though I could no longer see my pussy. I could feel myself dripping moisture onto Dennis’ jeans, and he smiled at me as he slid a hand down my belly and teased the small tuft of hair that I’d allowed to grow between my legs. “I’m sorry,” I said, ducking my head and blushing. “I’m sorry, I haven’t shaved—” “Shut up, Anita,” Dennis growled. With his free hand, he grabbed the back of my head and pulled me forward for a passionate kiss. When my lips met his, it burned like a brand. We kissed passionately, our tongues sliding together, sending powerful sensations of lust and desire through my body. I groaned and arched my back, pushing my breasts against Dennis’ shirt. The feel of the rough cotton against my bare skin made me shiver and moan into Dennis’ s mouth, and I squealed with delight as his fingers finally moved against my pussy, gently fondling my clit until fireworks were exploding in my belly. “Dennis,” I groaned. “Take me to bed. I want you, Dennis. I want you so much.” In one smooth, swift motion, Dennis hauled me off his lap and scooped me up in his arms. I kept my eyes closed as he staggered down the hallway, bearing my weight as though I was no heavier than a feather. Dennis kicked his bedroom door open, then stepped over the threshold and set me down on

the bed. With our eyes locked, he pulled his shirt over his head and yanked his jeans off. His cock was standing straight up, and it looked even bigger than it had the last time I’d seen him naked. I gasped as he crawled onto the bed, between my legs, and slapped my thighs apart. Dennis lied on his stomach and began kissing and licking my inner thighs. His stubble tickled me and I moaned softly, throwing my head back and burying it in the pillows on the bed. They all smelled like him – like pure, delicious man. Like unbridled sex, like the kind of man I’d always chased and never found. Not now, don’t think about that now, I ordered myself as I felt Dennis’ tongue slide even closer to my pussy. I moaned when I felt Dennis’ fingers between my legs, spreading my labia and licking gently at my clit. The sensation was so incredible that I strained to keep my legs as far apart as possible and pushed forward until my crotch rubbed against Dennis’ face. I blushed when I heard him chuckle, then he breathed softly on me. I gasped and Dennis chuckled again. As he slid his tongue around my swollen, soaked clit, I reached down and gently tangled my fingers in his unruly dark hair, guiding him towards the pleasure center of my universe. Dennis slid a finger inside of my soaked pussy and began to rock it back and forth as he sucked and licked at me. I went wild – thrashing around on the bed, moaning, throwing my head back and grinding my hips against Dennis’ face. As he licked at me, I closed my eyes until everything was black and swirling colors. When Dennis pulled away, I moaned softly. Opening my eyes, I watched as he crawled up the bed, over me, and kissed me wetly. His chin and beard were covered with my juices and I blushed as his tongue slipped into my mouth, still tasting like me. I sucked his tongue gently, then his lower lip. Dennis groaned into my mouth. His hands slid up my body, skimming over my breasts, and tangled in my hair. Our kiss deepened and instinctively, I pressed my body against his. Dennis was laying between my legs and I felt his hard cock against my pussy. “I want you,” I whispered softly. “Please, Dennis. Please take me.” Dennis steadied himself with one hand braced on my hip, then slid inside as slowly as he could. I groaned at the sensation of his cock filling me, then closed my eyes and held my breath as he bucked his hips against mine. We rocked and moved together in a sensual kind of unspoken rhythm. I wrapped an arm around Dennis’ neck and pulled him down close. Our breath was mingling, our lips were inches apart, and as he thrust in and out of my body, I felt my pleasure begin to build. Moaning softly, I ground my pelvis against Dennis’ abs until I felt my clit rub against his body. The sensation was breathtaking and I let out a small whimper of delight as Dennis slammed into my body. His breath was coming in ragged gasps, and I felt him move against me. Suddenly, Dennis grabbed my hand and twisted to the side. We rolled together and landed with him on his back, with me straddling him. It felt obscene: my belly was sticking out and I couldn’t even see his belly, but I felt his cock filling me, just as much as before. Dennis grinned up at me.

“I wanna see you ride me,” Dennis growled. He reached up and gently pinched my nipple. I moaned in response and Dennis pinched harder. The pleasure shooting through my body was almost too much to bear, and I threw my head back and cried out with delight. Dennis’ free hand moved to my hips and he began to push me back and forth until I was riding his cock. I could barely breathe as we moved together and I leaned forward and braced myself against Dennis’ chest with one hand as I ground against him. I was so wet that my juices were leaking down Dennis’ hips and soaking the mattress beneath us. As I arched my back and cried out, Dennis sat up and took one of my nipples in his mouth. My clit pushed against his pubic bone and I moaned softly. Fingers tangled in my hair, pushing my head forward, until my lips met with Dennis’. We kissed passionately, tongues meshing, and I held my breath as I pumped my hips faster and faster on top of his body. Dennis’ cock felt like a rod inside of me and I wriggled eagerly. Finally, he let out a wild groan in my mouth. I felt Dennis’ body shudder and shake with pleasure. “Keep going,” Dennis whispered in my ear as he pulled away. He slid a hand between our bodies and began rubbing at my clit until I was trembling. When the orgasm hit me, it was the most powerful thing I’d ever experienced, like my whole body had been covered with lights and all of them blinked on at once. I moaned and threw my head back and let out a wild scream as my body tensed with the orgasm. The silence was deafening as Dennis slowly pulled his arms away from me. I climbed off of him and collapsed next to him. We weren’t touching, and I could feel my heart thudding in my chest. Finally, Dennis reached over and pulled me close. “Come here,” Dennis whispered. “Just let me hold you for a while.” I wanted to get up, to go to my room, to forget about what had just happened. But Dennis’ bed was so warm and inviting, and I was so drowsy. My body was still tingling and buzzing with the intense orgasm I’d just had, and I realized that I couldn’t make myself move, even if I had wanted to. “Okay,” I said slowly. I pulled the sheet over our bodies and snuggled closer. Dennis wrapped an arm around me. “Are you okay?” “Yeah,” I said softly. I rolled onto my side and Dennis shifted behind me, spooning me close. The heat from his body was relaxing enough to make me want to sleep. “What’s wrong?” I snorted. “I just said I was fine!” “Right,” Dennis said wryly. “But I can tell you’re lying. What’s up, Anita?” “Nothing,” I said again. “I just didn’t really take you for a snuggler, that’s all.”

Dennis chuckled. “Well, I didn’t really think we’d wind up sleeping together again,” he replied. “Are you okay? Was that too much for you?” “No,” I said softly. “It was unexpected, that’s all.” I yawned. “I can’t believe how tired I am. I feel like I’ve been running a marathon or something. Being pregnant is exhausting. I don’t know how people who have long jobs can stand it.” Dennis burst out laughing. “I’m sure,” he said. “It seems like it’s a real pain.” His voice dropped low. “You’re great, though. You look beautiful, even with that belly. You’re going to be one of those hot moms with tattoos.” I snorted. “Right,” I said softly. I yawned again. This time, Dennis joined in. “Just sleep, babe,” he said. “Just take a nap. I’ll be right here, okay?” I didn’t even have the strength to agree. I closed my eyes, thinking that I’d just relax for a few minutes and then get up. But my limbs felt heavier and heavier with each breath I took. A little nap won’t hurt, I rationalized. Everything’s going to be fine. I’m safe. Dennis is right here.

Chapter Eighteen Anita “Anita,” Mack growled. “What the fuck are you doing, huh? You dumb bitch! I told you, don’t leave the stove on!” “Mack, I’m still cooking,” I argued. “I’m making your dinner! Would you rather I stopped?” Mack stepped closer, his hands already balled into the telltale fists. “No,” he said. “But I wanted you to have it on the table when I got home. Didn’t I make that real fuckin’ clear when we moved in together? As soon as I get home, dinner’s on the table. That’s a fuckin’ rule, Anita. Don’t fuck with me!” He swung his fist back in the air and I ducked, but it caught me on the side of the head and I cried out in pain. “Mack, I’m sorry!” I cried loudly. “Mack, I didn’t know you’d be home this early! It’s only six! Most of the time you’re not back here ‘til nine! And if I had dinner cooked early most nights, it’d be cold when you got home. What am I supposed to do?” I knew that I was being bad, talking back to him like this. But sometimes I just got so frustrated. Being with someone as heated as Mack was enough to make me feel like no matter what I did, it wasn’t good enough. “You’re walking a thin line, bitch,” Mack snarled. “I want dinner in half an hour. Any more than that and I’ll beat you so bad you won’t be able to sit down for a week. You got that, cunt?” Miserably, I turned back towards the stove and prayed the water would boil as quickly as possible. I didn’t even understand why Mack was acting like this – after all, he was mostly indifferent to my cooking. I wasn’t that good. I knew that I wasn’t that good. Mom and Dad had always favored really simple meals: egg noodle casserole, tuna melts, that kind of thing. Sometimes salmon cakes with canned salmon if Mom was feeling fancy, or during Lent. I was making spaghetti and meatballs. When I pulled the package of ground beef out of the fridge, my hands were shaking so badly that I almost dropped it. My thoughts were racing, no matter how calm I tried to stay, I couldn’t. I kept thinking about what Mack would do to me if I ruined dinner again. I shouldn’t have been so scared. After all, I’d been through some bad beatings. Mack beat me almost every day of the week, for reasons known only to him. It had gotten so bad that I’d had to quit my part-time job. I basically only lived as his housekeeper and cook now. Sometimes his girlfriend, at least, in front of the other Iron Titans. But Mack had taken to smacking me around in front of the men, too. I guessed that it made him feel like a real man. Just as I’d gotten the meatballs together with bread crumbs and herbs, I felt a hand clamp down on my shoulder. I spun around and Mack was standing right there. There was alcohol wafting off his breath and white powder caked on his nostril. As soon as I saw that he’d been doing coke

again, I felt my heart sink. “Bitch, where the fuck is my food?” Mack’s voice wasn’t yelling, yet, but he was close. “Where the fuck is my dinner, bitch? I told you to have it ready!” “It hasn’t been a half-hour yet,” I replied, my voice trembling. I began to shake and shiver and closed my eyes, anticipating a fist against my cheek. “Mack, I’m trying, I’m really trying. I’m sorry!” “Try harder, you stupid cunt,” Mack snarled. He leaned toward my face until I could feel his breath hot against my cheek. “Try harder! Do it right now!” I turned back around to the stove and suppressed a sob as I put my hands into the bowl and began squeezing the meatballs together. My hands were shaking so badly that I dropped a clump of meat onto the floor. I almost felt the punch before it happened. Mack socked me hard in the cheek, so hard that I heard something crack in my inner ear. I let out a yelp of pain and felt myself falling to the ground. Before I could block my fall with my hands, I crashed onto my knees and cried out again. The kitchen floor was hard concrete under a thin layer of linoleum, and it felt like I’d fallen from a two-story building. “You’re such a fucking cunt!” Mack yelled. “I do everything for you! I give you a place to live, and protection, and I take care of you! And this is how you repay me, you fucking bitch!” He kicked me and the blows started raining down on my body. I couldn’t even count how many times he hit me – after a while, it all blurred together. “Mack, please,” I begged, curling into a ball and covering my face with my hands. “Please stop!” Miraculously, the punches and blows stopped. I dared to breath, peeking between a crack in my fingers. My body was swollen and aching and I could feel that I’d broken a tooth. Blood was oozing down my throat, making me nauseated. Mack reached down and grabbed my shoulder. I tried to push him away but he tightened his grip and yanked me up until I was standing on my feet. “You’re a cunt,” Mack said. He crossed his arms over his chest and smiled – he actually smiled! – at me like it was some kind of cute joke. “You know what happens to cunts?” Painfully, I licked my lip. My jaw was throbbing and the broken tooth was cutting into the side of my mouth. It was already swollen and sore – I knew that I’d probably have to have surgery, or at least have the rest of the tooth yanked by some cheap dentist. “Answer me,” Mack growled. “What happens to cunts?” “I don’t know,” I whimpered. “Mack, I’m sorry! Just give me ten minutes and I’ll have dinner ready for you, okay?”

Mack shook his head. “I lost my fuckin’ appetite,” he snarled. “But you’re gonna eat. Come here.” On shaky, steady legs I walked towards him. Mack shoved me down to my knees and I yelped again as a shock of pain flooded my body. He unzipped his pants and shrugged them down to his knees. His cock was already hard, and I sighed when I realized what he wanted me to do. “Mack, please,” I begged softly. It hurt to talk and my words sounded mushed up, like I was drunk. “I think I broke my tooth. I can’t put anything in my mouth right now.” Mack chuckled. “Too fuckin’ bad,” he said. “I think you want to pleasure me, Anita. I think that’s what good little cunts do when they’ve been bad.” My stomach sank as I wrapped my hand around his member and began to slowly pump him up and down. Mack groaned with pleasure and stepped forward. He tangled his hand in my hair and forced my head towards his cock. When it was over, I swallowed his cum and wiped my mouth with the back of my hand. I expected Mack to turn around and ignore me, but instead he watched, smiling, as I stood up off the kitchen floor and brushed the dirt off my knees. “I don’t think you’re done eating, yet,” Mack said. He grinned and I felt my stomach turn. What the fuck was he going to do to me now? Bring over the other bikers and have me blow all of them? Maybe one of them would see that I had a broken tooth and tell him to quit it. “Sit down,” Mack ordered. He grabbed me again – more roughly this time – and dragged me toward the kitchen table. As he pushed me down in a chair, I felt the air rush out of my lungs. Mack reached towards the counter and grabbed the bowl of raw hamburger meat that I had been using for meatballs. He put it in front of me. The smell of raw meat was enough to turn my stomach and I gagged, turning away and putting my face in my shoulder. “Don’t be a bitch, Anita,” Mack said. He grinned again and put his hands on his hips. “I wanna make sure you get your dinner. Eat!” When I didn’t make a move for the bowl, his eyes turned dark and angry. “Eat it all, you cunt.” With a shaking hand, I reached into the bowl and picked up a small ball of raw meat. The juices dripped over my fingers as I lifted it close to my mouth. “Mack, please,” I begged. “I’m going to get sick! This is dangerous, Mack. Please don’t make me do this. I’m sorry I didn’t have dinner ready for you! I’m sorry! I’ll do anything! I’ll make you anything you want!” “Eat it,” Mack thundered. “Don’t make me hit you again, you cunt. You fuckin’ hurt my hand! I ought to beat you black and blue for that!”

My skin crawled as I slowly brought the handful of raw meat to my mouth and took a nibble. My broken tooth throbbed as I chewed quickly, trying to swallow the meat before the flavor penetrated my taste buds. I gagged and coughed and almost threw it up, but managed to keep it down. Mack stared at me, disgusted. “You’re fucking pathetic,” he said. He grabbed the bowl of meat and threw it as hard as he could. The bowl hit the wall and shattered into a thousand pieces while the huge lump of meat dropped to the floor. I felt the vomit rise in my throat and leapt out of the chair, running to the sink and throwing up. “Help!” “Anita? Anita? Are you okay?” My skin was clammy with icy cold sweat and my heart was pounding. For a moment, I didn’t know where I was. I was in a small room, with a window. Then it hit me. I wasn’t in Carlsbad. I was in St. George, Utah, with Dennis. The man who had saved me. “I had a nightmare,” I said. Before I could take a deep breath, I was hit with a wave of uncontrollable sobs. Dennis wrapped his arms around me and pulled me close. “What happened?” I bit my lip. “I was back with Mack,” I whimpered quietly into Dennis’ chest. “And he was hitting me again.” I sniffled and wiped my eyes on the sheet. “Please don’t ever let me go back there, Dennis. Please protect me. Please keep me safe from that monster!” “Shhhh,” Dennis whispered. He stroked my damp hair with one hand and kept me close with his other arm. “You’re right here. You’re not going anywhere.” I shifted closer. We were still naked, and I slowly began to remember that I’d fallen asleep in bed with Dennis after having sex with him. The nightmarish visuals of Mack’s angry face were still floating through my head. I closed my eyes and tried to relax, breathing in deep. Dennis’ calming, masculine scent washed over me with every breath and soon I felt my heartrate slowing. “Just try to sleep, okay?” Dennis whispered. He slid his hand down my arm and found my fingers before squeezing them gently. “I promise, we’re safe here. Mack’s not going to find us. Everything’s going to be okay.” I didn’t sleep very well for the rest of the night. Thankfully, I had no more horrible dreams about Mack, but I drifted in and out of a thin sleep until dawn had broken. Dennis was gone by the time I finally woke up for good. It felt weird to be alone in his room. I’d never even stepped foot inside before the previous evening, and here I was, sprawled out in his bed like I owned the damn thing.

I pulled on my clothes and put my hair up into a messy bun. When I walked into the living room, Dennis was sitting there with a cold slice of pizza and a bottle of beer. “Hey,” I said shortly. “I’m… I’m really sorry about last night.” Dennis nodded. “Look, Anita, I’m really sorry I didn’t listen to you sooner.” He closed his eyes and balanced his slice of pizza on top of the open beer bottle. “I should have. I should’ve listened to every fuckin’ thing you ever said about Mack, but I was a stubborn asshole and I thought I knew better than you.” I snorted. “Glad you listened,” I said. “I’d probably be dead by now if you hadn’t.” I put a hand on my belly. “And I don’t think this little nugget would be here, either.” The silence between us felt awkward for a moment. Finally, I scooted closer and put my hand on Dennis’ shoulder. “I want to talk to you about something,” I said slowly. “I want you to quit the Iron Titans.” Dennis frowned. “I mean, I can’t really go back,” he said. “Mack is probably onto the fact that I ran. He’s been calling me every day, for weeks. I don’t answer, but….” I paled. “You have to call him and tell him you’ve quit, and then do something about your phone,” I said. “He could be tracking us!” Dennis snorted. “Babe, if he were tracking us, he would’ve found us by now.” He rolled his eyes. “I know, I know, you’re paranoid about him finding us here. But you don’t have anything to worry about! We’re safe, and everything’s gonna be okay.” I glared at him. “I don’t think that’s true,” I said softly. “Mack could be waiting. He could be biding his time, waiting for you to leave me alone. Or waiting for me to go into the hospital, so he can fuck you up when I’m not around to call the cops.” Dennis shook his head. “Anita… You’re sounding a little crazy right now,” he said softly. When he saw the look on my face, he backed down. “I mean, not crazy,” he said diplomatically. “And I know you’re afraid. But Carlsbad is hundreds of miles away. He’s not stalking us! I promise.” I shook my head. “I don’t believe you,” I said stubbornly. “I want you to call him and tell him you’re out. Please,” I begged. “Please do this for me. I don’t want him showing up and killing you because he says you still have some kind of obligation to him! That’s not fair, Dennis.” I glared. “And you’re not going back to the Iron Titans after this baby is born. You can form your own MC, I don’t care. But I’m not ever seeing Mack again. I can’t handle it. It would kill me,” I said softly. A tear came to my eye and I wiped it away. “Please,” I added. “Please do this. Please do this for me.”

Chapter Nineteen Dennis My heart sank as Anita kept talking. I knew she was right. Deep down, I knew that I had to call Mack once and for all and tell him that I was done. That I was done with the Iron Titans, done with him, done with everything involving California. Even though I thought it would wind up being my home, I knew now that my home was with Anita and our child. Our son, or our daughter. Whatever she had, I’d love it like it was my own child. This was my chance to finally make things right. Sometimes, that was all that I thought I’d really wanted. Maybe I hadn’t wanted some big badass life as a biker, but maybe I’d just wanted a fucking family. After all, I’d never had a real family before. Even the guys in the Iron Titans… We were close, like brothers, but I didn’t really know much about them. We just knew to look out for each other, that was all. But I knew Anita was right. “Okay,” I said. “I’ll call him right now.” Anita didn’t move. “You wanna go outside or something?” After a moment, she got up and walked down the hall to her room. When the door closed behind her, I wasn’t expecting to feel as hurt as I did. With nervous fingers, I dialed up Mack. He took a while to answer, and for a moment I was relieved, thinking that he’d have to call me back later. You’re such a pussy, I thought as I tapped my foot on the ground. Man up and fucking deal with this like an adult. “Yo,” Mack answered. “Dennis, where the fuck are you? Where is she?” “She’s gone, Mack,” I said. “She’s gone to California. I was tracking her for a couple of weeks. She got real suspicious every time I got close, but she’s not here. I went to grab her this morning, and her landlord says she skipped town without paying rent. She’s wanted here, but she’s back to Cali. Northern Cali, probably.” There was a pause. “What the fuck,” Mack growled. “You asshole, I gave you one fucking job—” “And I’m not coming back,” I said sharply. “I’m staying here in Colorado. I’m quitting the Iron Titans. I’m forming my own club, and riding at the front.” Mack didn’t answer. I counted to ten, then hung up the phone. My heart was racing and my palms were sweating. I was more anxious than I’d felt in a long time, and suddenly it occurred to me that while Anita was more likely than not just paranoid, she had a point. Phones could be tracked, real easy. Even here in Utah. Sure, it was remote. But we still had enough cell towers in town. I shoved my phone in my pocket and went outside. There was a box of tools in the bed of the truck

and I pulled it open, letting the metal box clatter to the ground at my feet. In exasperation, I opened it and began digging through as quickly as I could. When I found what I wanted, I pulled it out and wrapped my hand around the handle. Pulling my phone out of my pocket, I set it down on the concrete and swung the hammer in the air behind me. It whistled through the air with a dangerous quiet sound. When the head of the hammer connected with the phone, I cringed. Plastic flew in every direction. I kept smashing it until it was little more than a pile of glass and plastic shards on the ground. Still, I wasn’t satisfied. I pulled a heavy wrench out of the toolbox and began smashing the bits of phone into smithereens. It looked like a bottle had smashed into a thousand pieces. By the time I was done, I was covered in a fine sheen of sweat. “Bravo,” Anita called. She was standing in the doorway with her hands on her hips. “That was nicely done.” She smiled and I couldn’t help but smile back at her. “Thank you,” she said. She walked over to me and slowly pulled the wrench and hammer out of my hands, setting them down on the driveway. When she kissed me, I thought my heart was going to explode. “You’re welcome,” I told her softly. “Are you okay?” Anita nodded. “I think I will be,” she said. “And I owe you a new phone. Want me to get you one of those phones from Target?” I shook my head. “Nah, I’ll buy one later.” I pulled her close and kissed her roughly. The kiss wasn’t passionate but after a moment, Anita’s tongue poked against my lips and I felt my knees go weak. She pulled away, then kissed me once more lightly. She swallowed nervously. “I love you,” Anita said softly. “I love you, too,” I told her. For a moment, we stared at each other. Then Anita jumped into my arms and wrapped her legs around my waist. My lips pressed against hers and my tongue slipped into her mouth. The sensations filling my body were hard to describe – I wanted her, so badly, but it was more than just that. I didn’t want to have sex with her. I wanted to possess her, to own her, to make her completely mine forever and ever. I carried Anita inside and slammed the door behind me, not bothering to lock it. As we stumbled back towards my bedroom, Anita moaned softly. I could feel her belly moving against my body and the sensation was odd, but I almost enjoyed it. Her hot little legs were wrapped around my waist and I could feel the heat from her pussy warming my whole torso. Anita moaned as I tangled my hand in her hair and yanked it back, exposing her perfect white neck. Breaking the kiss, I trailed my face down her skin, kissing her delicate neck and collarbone. She was only wearing a robe, and I pulled it away from her body as we crashed into the bed. Anita giggled. “I can’t believe this,” she whispered, leaning over and tugging my shirt off my head. “I can’t believe we’re in love.”

I felt giddy just thinking about it. Anita stroked her hands down my bare chest and began fumbling with my belt. I watched as she pulled it off, tossed it to the side, then got to work on my pants. As she unfastened them and began tugging them down my legs, I reached down and yanked them off, tossing them to the side. I wasn’t wearing underwear, and my cock sprang to life at the sight of Anita’s gorgeous, naked body. She was so beautiful and her pregnancy only seemed to enhance that. I ran my hands over her tits, rubbing her nipples between my thumb and forefinger, enjoying the loud moans that came from the back of Anita’s throat as I worked on her body. “Dennis,” Anita growled. She planted her hands on my chest and pushed me back, climbing on top of me. Her breasts swung in the air and I reached for them, thumbing her hard nipples until my cock was throbbing with lust. I wanted her, right then and there. I wanted to plunge inside of her and bury my cock inside that perfect wet pussy until she was screaming for more, screaming my name, helpless and unable to move. Anita rolled onto her back and pulled me on top her. We kissed – slowly this time, really taking our time – and I shivered with pleasure as Anita’s soft hand wrapped around my cock, beginning to pump up and down. She knew exactly how to touch me, exactly how to drive me wild. I could feel myself throbbing with desire and I growled in the back of my throat, gently pushing her away and rolling her onto her belly. Anita’s ass had always been perfect, but ever since she’d gotten noticeably more pregnant, it was fuller and rounder than before. I spanked her gently, enjoying the cries of pleasure that rose from her body as my hand made contact with each perfect globe of flesh. Anita spread her legs and moaned, and when I saw her glistening pussy, I knew that I could barely wait any longer. I lowered my mouth to her ass, gently kissing the perfect, round skin, and slipped a finger between her legs and slid it inside of her pussy lips. Anita let out a cry and her body tensed. She grabbed fistfuls of the sheet and began writhing against me and moaning loudly. A layer of sweat broke out over my body and I grabbed her thighs and pulled them apart. Anita raised her hips in the air, clearly ready for me. She looked over her shoulder. “I want you,” Anita begged. “I want you so much. Take me now, Dennis. Take me!” I couldn’t ignore her forceful cries. As I buried my fingers in the sweet flesh of her ass cheeks, I mounted her thighs and positioned the tip of my erection against her pussy. Anita cried out and rocked her body back and forth until just the tip of my cock was inside of her. She moaned softly and wriggled beneath me on the soft bed as I plunged inside of her. It felt so good that I groaned. I stayed on top of her like that for a moment, then began to rock my hips and fuck her gently. From this angle, Anita’s pussy felt tight and deep and I tangled my fingers in her hair and rode her hard. “God,” I groaned. “How do you feel so fucking good? I don’t understand it!” Anita moaned in response. She buried her face in the pillow and bucked her hips under me so that I had to grip her shoulders and ass in order to stay on top of her. With each thrust, I felt myself coming closer and closer to the brink of a powerful orgasm. My balls ached with lust and I closed my eyes

and gritted my teeth as I rode her hard. Anita was so wet that the bed beneath us was soaked with her juices. The air was thick and heavy with the mingled scent of our sweat and arousal, and I breathed in deeply as I slid inside of Anita’s perfect vagina, over and over again. Anita groaned and shuddered. I felt her whole body tense up as she held her breath, burying her face into the pillows. She reached behind her and I took her hand in mine. She was sweating and shaking and I squeezed her fingers as I plunged inside of her. Before I knew it, I was holding my own breath and diving as deeply as I could inside of the woman I loved. This is fucking, I thought as I rode her breathless. This is everything I’ve been missing out on and what I’ve always wanted. This is exactly how I want the rest of my life to be. Anita moaned loudly. She lifted her face up from the pillows to scream my name and a powerful bolt of lust went through me. I knew then that I’d do anything, anything, to keep her safe and make her feel loved. As I came, I screamed and buried my fingers deep in Anita’s fleshy bottom. She cried out in response and moved her body against mine. I felt her pussy gripping and clenching down on my cock with the force of her own powerful orgasm. We moved together on the bed, pulling the sheets off the mattress, tangled in a lustful pile of limbs. Afterwards, I climbed off Anita and wiped the sweat from my brow. The smell of sex hung heavy in the air and I sucked in, closing my eyes and grinning. Anita rolled over and pulled me close. She was sweaty and hot, but I desperately wanted to hold her. “I meant what I said,” Anita said shyly. She looked up at me through a tangle of highlighted brown hair. “I love you, Dennis. I’m sorry I couldn’t tell you before now.” I snorted, then brushed her damp hair away from her face. “Don’t worry about it, babe,” I told her. I leaned over and kissed her forehead. “I never thought I’d love a woman. But what I feel for you… god, it’s powerful. I love you, too.” “Promise me that we’ll give our kid a perfect life,” Anita whispered. She traced her fingers over my chest and I jumped as she touched my nipples. Anita giggled. “Sensitive much?” “We’ll try to give our kid the best life possible,” I replied quietly. I pulled her closer and kissed her forehead again. Anita’s eyelids fluttered closed and I felt a relaxed, warm happiness drift through my limbs. “I promise, Anita.” “And promise you’ll never call me names,” Anita whispered softly. “Please, don’t ever be cruel to me, Dennis. I couldn’t take it anymore. If you don’t love me, just tell me. But don’t ever abuse me. I couldn’t deal with another man who hurt me so much.” I was suddenly overcome with a powerful urge to simultaneously wrap Anita in the tightest hug of life while killing Mack in the slowest, most torturous way possible. I hated him. I couldn’t believe that I’d ever defended his actions! I was ashamed of myself.

“God, Anita, I swear,” I whispered. “And if he ever comes close to us, I’ll kill him in seconds. I’m not letting anyone hurt my family. Anita, you’re what I’ve always wanted and I’m never letting you go. I’m never letting anyone hurt you or our child. I promise, I’ll always protect you.” Anita snuggled closer. She kissed my chest and buried her face in my armpit. “And I’m sorry I was such a stubborn asshole,” I added quietly. “I should have always believed you. Anita, I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to make that up to you.” “I know,” she said softly. “I know, Dennis.”

Chapter Twenty Mack I knew something was up. Dennis had always been a real good stooge. The kind of idiot who listened to every order I gave him, and then some. He’d always been desperate for a family, and the Iron Titans were about as close as he was ever gonna get. He was a real loser, a reject who’d grown up in foster care. So when I told him to go get that cunt of a girlfriend of mine, I thought he’d comply real easily. He didn’t have a reason to fuck with me. I’d given him a chance when no other MC in town would listen to anything he said. He owed me, goddamnit. “Mack, what the fuck is going on?” One of the other guys in the club, Rocky, strode up and eyed me. “Where the fuck is Dennis?” I rolled my eyes. “That little shit is trying to fuck me,” I said. “He disappeared over a month ago, and I know something went south. He ditched the car outside of Colorado, weeks ago, and he hasn’t been answering his calls.” “That’s so fucked up, Boss,” Rocky said. He grinned. “You think he run off with your bitch?” He started laughing and I punched him hard in the gut. “Fuck! Ow! That fuckin’ hurt, you ass!” “Don’t fuckin’ talk about that cunt,” I said. “She’s fuckin’ dead to me.” I cracked my knuckles and pulled my arms over my head to stretch. “She ain’t got shit.” “Well, you go get her then, and show her how little she really means,” Rocky said. He grinned, showing off his teeth. Like some of the other members of the Iron Titans, Rocky had filed his teeth down to sharp little points. When we got into fights with other MCs, my men had a penchant for biting. And I sure as fuck wasn’t planning on stopping any of that. “I reckon I’ll have to do just that.” I stood up and wiped my palms on my jeans. “You put a tracker on Dennis’ phone, right?” Rocky nodded. “Yeah,” he said. “Look, sorry about the car. That one was real hard to rig up. It’s possible that it just fell off somewhere. Those old cars, they’re hard to keep track of for too long. Ain’t like these ones with computers and shit.” I rolled my eyes. “I don’t want any more of your bullshit excuses,” I told him. “I need a flight to Durango, immediately.” Rocky laughed. “You can’t fly into Durango,” he said. “You gotta go to Denver and rent a car. It’s a

real small town.” He blinked. “Mack, you really think this guy is trying to fuck you? Dennis was always good. He did everything right, for fuck’s sake! He never even spoke out of turn.” “I know,” I said. “That’s why I’m so fuckin’ pissed off.” “I’ll look for his phone,” Rocky promised. He pulled out a laptop and opened it, pulling his browser up to Google. Rocky was one of the smarter men in the Titans –I’d plucked him up after he’d dropped out of college, and he’d been real useful to me so far. I owed him. “You should come with me,” I said sharply. “You should come with me and get the bitch and make sure Dennis doesn’t see the light of day again. It’s your turn to step up, Rock. You wanna lead this club one day?” Rocky raised his eyebrows. “Boss, I ain’t worthy of such an honor,” he said. He grinned, then shoved the laptop towards me. It showed a map with a blinking blue light in the center. I squinted and leaned closer to the screen. “I don’t know what the fuck I’m lookin’ at,” I told him. “You gotta tell me how to read this shit.” “So, the dot is his phone,” Rocky said. He pulled the computer back towards him and zoomed out of the map. “But they ain’t in Colorado. This is Utah, or some shit. Real middle of nowhere town.” I felt my stomach twist into a knot. “So you’re telling me that they’re hiding out?” My voice came out as an angry growl. “They’re fucking hiding out and lying to me?” Rocky nodded. “Yeah, look at the time stamp, here,” he said as he pointed towards the bottom right corner of the screen. He pulled up another window and then set the two side by side. “And see, here’s this other shot,” he added. “This was a week ago, look. The dot barely moves. Just around in a little circle, here.” Rocky zoomed in and I saw what looked like a little shack. “I guess he’s staying there.” “Is that my car in the yard?” Rocky snorted. “Looks like a truck,” he said, scrutinizing the screen. “So you want me to come with you? To fuckin’ Utah?” I stood up and shoved my fists in my pocket. “Yeah,” I grunted. “I guess we’re goin’ to fuckin’ Utah.” Two days later, Rocky and I were waiting to catch a charter plane from Carlsbad to St. George, Utah. I’d never heard of that shit small town before. I hadn’t even wanted to believe that it existed – it all seemed so easy to fake the technology that Rocky would have needed to trick me. But we’d had a little chat and I knew he couldn’t possibly be lying to me. I’d shown him my knife, and told him that if he even thought about tricking me, the blade would be in his gut. Rocky got real quiet after that and told me that he wasn’t kidding.

The flight wasn’t as short as I thought it would be. My legs were aching by the end, and I was getting madder and madder by the second. I hated that cunt for running away from me, after all that I’d done for her. And I hated Dennis even more. I’d been nothing but good to him, and he chose to repay me by going off with my fuckin’ slut of a girlfriend and quitting the Iron Titans. When men patched into the Titans, they were required to serve at least five years. Dennis had done nothin’ of the sort – he’d only been around for a couple. And while I’d been sure originally that I could count on him for a long time, this whole thing made me wary of every Titan left. “Hey,” I said sharply. “I’m thinking of making up some kinda test when we get back home. You know, somethin’ that’ll really make the men think before they fuck me again. Whaddya think about that?” Rocky laughed. “Sure, Boss,” he said. He looked out the window with wide eyes. “This is the first time I’ve ever been on a plane,” he added. “I don’t give a fuck,” I snarled. “You’re here because you’re helping me, goddamnit, not because you’re on some kind of fuckin’ vacation! You got that?” Rocky sat back in the seat and nodded. “Yeah,” he said. “I got that. Sorry, Boss.” We didn’t talk again until the plane landed. I was so angry that I could feel my blood boiling. It had been months since Anita had run off, and after the first couple of weeks, I hadn’t thought about her much. Sure, I was pissed as fuck at Dennis for stealing the little cunt. But aside from wanting to clock her real good and hard when she came home, I hadn’t thought of what to do. Now I knew exactly what I was gonna do to that little bitch. I was gonna make her apologize, personally, to every single member of the Iron Titans for putting their leader in such a rotten mood. Maybe they’d like a couple of fucks, or a blowjob, or some shit like that. Anita gave great head – that was one of the reasons I’d stayed with her. She knew how to suck dick like a pro. I was sure the rest of the guys could really benefit from blowing a big load in her mouth. I didn’t want her anymore, anyway. So after that, I’d drag her out to the woods and kill her. Nothing too harsh. Probably just slit her throat like a pig and leave her to die. She was a cunt, and that’s what cunts get for abandoning their masters. “Hey,” Rocky said. He tapped me on the shoulder. “Look.” He pointed out the window. “We’re here, and this is one hell of a small town, Boss.” The plane was circling a small landing field. It looked like the middle of nowhere, until I craned my neck and glanced out the window. There were big rocky red mountains surrounding the town. It didn’t look a damn thing like Carlsbad. It looked like the desert. I couldn’t imagine living here, or why Dennis would want to. The anger returned to my system, pumping like lava through my veins as I thought of why he’d stick around. He’s been sticking his dick in that sweet pussy, I thought with a growl. And he should have known that pussy belonged to me. But he’s gonna learn, real fast, as soon as I see him.

Once we landed, Rocky and I thumbed a ride into the center of town. There wasn’t much to see. Most of it was one street, and a lot of the buildings were abandoned. There was one place that rented cars. I had Rocky go inside and pay for one while I waited outside with a cigarette. As soon as we had wheels, Rocky drove me to the outskirts of town. I could feel myself getting pumped with adrenaline, like I always did right before a fight. I wished right then and there that I had a bump or two of blow. That always helped me when I was goin’ against someone strong. Not that I thought Dennis was all that strong; compared to me, he was total pussy. But I wanted to beat him so badly he’d never be able to walk again. I was reveling in the sensation of how it would feel to do that just as Rocky pulled up to a shitty little cottage with dirty windows and a heap of broken-down furniture in the front yard. “Looks like they’ve got themselves a real white trash life,” Rocky cracked. “Boss, you want me to go in with you?” “No,” I snapped. “I’m gonna fuckin’ do it myself, thank you very much.” I climbed out of the car and slammed the door. Pushing my sleeves up, I climbed onto the porch and knocked on the door. No one answered. I held my breath and leaned down to press my ear against the door. Inside was quiet. Fuck yes, I thought. Maybe they’re not home, and I can surprise them with a little welcomeback party. Thoughts filled my head about what Anita’s face would look like after she’d seen what I’d done to her precious boyfriend Dennis. I smiled. That bitch is gonna be so surprised, I thought. She’s gonna be real sorry about the day she left me, that’s for fuckin’ sure. When I knocked again and got no answer, I pulled the storm door open and lowered my shoulder. The front door wasn’t even locked. Inside, the living room was empty. There was some shitty wicker furniture, a pizza box on the couch, and the TV was blaring. I frowned. Most people don’t fuckin’ leave the television on when they leave. As silently as I could, I prowled down the hallway. There was a quiet sound coming from behind a closed door. I grinned menacingly as I wrapped my fingers around the doorknob and shoved the door open. Anita and Dennis were lying in bed together, all tangled up. When Anita saw me, she opened her mouth and let out a wild scream. “Surprise, bitch,” I said. Then I grinned and walked into the room.

Chapter Twenty-One Anita Just as I was starting to get comfortable, I heard someone knocking on the door. “Dennis, someone’s at the door,” I whispered. Instinctively, I panicked. “You better get up and check who it is.” Dennis stroked my hair and pulled me closer. “Probably one of those asshole Mormons, selling their religion,” he said. He snorted. “Just relax, babe. We should try to catch a little bit of sleep. Later on, I’ll go out and get a new phone.” He planted a kiss on my forehead and I felt love radiate through my body. “You gonna cook tonight?” I burst out laughing. “I think I’ll finally teach you how to make spaghetti without turning into a lump of paste,” I said through a hail of giggles. “Oh, you’re gonna teach me somethin’, huh?” Dennis got to his knees and started tickling me until I couldn’t breathe. “Stop, stop!” I howled. Dennis kept tickling and eventually I squealed with laughter and flopped on top of him. For a moment, we lay like that, not moving. Then Dennis pulled me into his arms and planted his lips on my forehead. “I love you, Anita,” Dennis whispered. “I never imagined this would happen, but I’m so happy it did.” He reached down and stroked my belly. “And you’re seven months pregnant tomorrow.” He snickered. “I didn’t think you could get any bigger, but I guess we’re gonna see.” I snuggled close. “I can’t wait to meet our baby,” I said softly. There was another knock on the door, even more loud and insistent than before. I felt a stab of cold fear pierce my belly. “Dennis, you should really get up and check,” I said softly. “What if it’s something bad?” Dennis laughed. “Those Mormons are fuckin’ pushy,” he said. He scoffed. “I fixed one of their trucks the other day, and he was talkin’ to me the whole goddamn time about the Book of Mormon. They don’t get it, I mean, I didn’t want to be an asshole, but—” We both looked at each other as we heard a loud bang from the living room. “I’ll get up,” Dennis whispered. “You stay here.” Suddenly, I was too afraid to be alone. “No,” I hissed. “Get back here and hold me, Dennis, please!”

Dennis looked at me and for the first time, I saw real fear in his eyes. That’s when the bedroom door burst open and Mack stormed through. I’ll never forget the look I saw in his eyes. It was like nothing I’d ever seen before – he was like a madman, a crazed villain from the books I never read in school. I shrieked and screamed and tried to climb backwards off the bed, pulling Dennis with me. “Surprise, bitch,” Mack said. He grinned, his rotten teeth reflecting off the dim light in the room. “Get behind me, Anita,” Dennis yelled. He yanked his jeans on in a half second and walked towards Mack with his hand balled in a fist. “Anita, run!” “Don’t even think about goin’ anywhere, you cunt,” Mack snarled at me. “I gotta take care of your little boyfriend, but don’t you worry, I’ll get to you.” He swung at Dennis and I screamed again as Mack’s fist connected with Dennis’ jaw. It was too much to watch as Dennis crumpled to the ground, breaking his fall with the heels of his hands. “Anita, run!” Dennis yelled again. “Don’t worry about me, I—” “You better shut the fuck up!” Mack screamed. He kicked Dennis in the stomach and I shrieked as Dennis’ body flew up off the ground and landed again with a sickening thud. Dennis opened his eyes and winced. I felt like someone had just stabbed me in the heart. I never would have imagined it, but watching the man I loved get beaten to a pulp was more painful than being beaten myself. “Anita, go!” Dennis screamed. “Go! It’s okay! Go!” Mack swung another savage punch towards Dennis’ prone body and Dennis somehow managed to dodge it. He pulled himself up and threw a punch at Mack’s face, but missed and only hit air. Mack grinned and laughed. “You’re a fucking asshole, Dennis,” he hissed. “And you’re a fucking shitty fighter. Good thing you’re fucking dead now!” “Anita, run!” Dennis’ scream was so loud that it pierced my ears. “Anita, go! He’s going to kill you! Go! Now!” This time, I listened. Somehow, I managed to bolt past Dennis and Mack, wrapped only in a sheet from the bed. Tears blurred my vision as I darted out of the front door. There was a strange car parked in the driveway but I didn’t look twice as I bolted down the street. The blood was pounding in my ears and I was more frightened than I’d ever been in my life as I ran down the street, my bare feet slapping against the hot asphalt. My heart was pounding so quickly in my chest that I feared it would burst, and I was having a hard time breathing. The baby was kicking in my belly and suddenly, I knew with certainty that I’d never see Dennis again.

No, I thought as I ran down the street. My legs were aching by the time I’d gone one block, but I knew that I had to keep going. No, why did this have to happen? Why did he have to come back? Dennis, help me! I need you! “Help!” I screamed loudly. I had no idea what to do. We were miles away from the hospital, and we had no neighbors for miles. I let out another wild scream, then darted down the road, away from the cottage, without looking back. To be continued….

Chapter Twenty-Two Anita As I ran down the dusty, dirty road, I barely paid attention to the pain ratcheting through my body. My feet were bare and the road was full of bits of glass and rusty screws, but I ran on, my vision obscured by the thick veil of tears. I knew that soon, my life would be over. Mack had found me. He’d done everything in his power to find me here in St. George and destroy my life, yet again. If I hadn’t been so panicked, I probably would have felt bitter. This was the man who had shaped my life from adolescence, who had trained me to live in a state of near-constant terror and panic. This man had taken me when I was still young and obedient, and broken me. He’d made me into a shell of a person. He’d somehow managed to change me fundamentally, as if on a molecular level. I ran blindly away from the cottage. My heart was slamming against my ribs but my body felt light, like I was running on air. Strands of my long brown hair whipped in front of my face. I growled as I pushed my hair back over my shoulders and bolted forward with renewed enthusiasm. Come on, Anita, you can do this, I urged myself as I ran on and on. The road was deserted – for a moment, my thoughts flashed back to Dennis. He was still inside our cottage, fighting with Mack. A pang of anxiety shot through my body and I was almost tempted to turn around and go get him. Then I saw my pregnant belly moving through the air and knew there was nothing I could do. Dennis had made his choice – he’d ordered me to leave as he was trying to fend off Mack. It made me sick. It had all happened in a flash, much too quickly to look back on now. One moment, Dennis and I had been happy together, in bed, cuddling. I’d felt safe, warm, and loved. And now I was outside, wearing only a sheet, feeling more miserable and afraid than I’d ever felt in my life. “Help!” I screamed as I ran towards the road. The desolate landscape around me only added to my discomfort as I realized that I could be miles away from anyone or anything willing to help me. My throat swelled up and my eyes filled with fresh tears. “Help me! Help!” The scream filled my throat but sounded surprisingly empty when it came out. As I screamed and cried, the arid desert air did nothing but swallow my pleas. I felt a sharp stitch in my side as I ran towards the roadside, waving my arms, no longer caring that the sheet was slipping down my body and exposing the curves of my breasts. I have to get out of here, I realized quickly. I have to move! Mack is going to come looking for me, and then I’ll really be in trouble. When I didn’t see any cars coming, I whipped my head over my shoulder and started

running in the opposite direction. The road was hot from the mid-day sun, but the pavement felt good on my feet. Despite my fear and panic, I was starting to feel powerful, strong in a way that I hadn’t ever experienced before. I wondered if my baby was afraid. Closing my eyes, I quickly rubbed my protruding belly. It felt hot and hard, like a rock baking in the sun. It didn’t even feel like a part of my body. The blood was pounding in my ears as I crossed the road, over and over again. Think, Anita! Get your shit together! I blinked back tears as I tried to remember everything Dennis had told me about working for some of the neighbors. He’d done some minor repair work for them, on and off, ever since we’d found ourselves staying in St. George. But even though I’d listened to him gripe about the work itself, I realized with a growing panic that I’d never even bothered asking their names. In the distance, I saw something dark on the horizon. From where I stood, I couldn’t tell what it was. But I knew that I didn’t have much time – if I didn’t get moving, Mack was sure to find me. As I ran and stumbled towards the shadow, I cursed the desert. There were no trees here, no shade, no place to hide from my monster of an ex-boyfriend. I stuck out like a sore thumb in the dry, dusty landscape. Mack wouldn’t even need to look long. All he had to do was follow the road, and there I would be, sheet billowing around my body. I was probably the only person around for miles, save Dennis and Mack. I felt a pinch of sadness in my chest as I pushed my body forward and began to run again. What would happen? Would Mack kill Dennis? I hated thinking of that, I hated even thinking of Dennis being hurt, but I knew how sadistic Mack could be in a fit of rage. I shivered as I thought of how it would feel when he found me. What would he do? Beat me so badly that I’d lose the baby? Kill me? Drag me back to Carlsbad and kill me in front of the other Iron Titans? The metallic taste of fear seeped into my mouth as I approached what looked to be a ramshackle little house by the side of the road. I didn’t want to allow myself to hope as I ran, but I couldn’t ignore the swelling inside my lungs. The pain, which had been absent for what felt like hours, was starting to come back. As my bare feet slapped against the hot tar of the road, tendrils of agony crept up my ankles and legs. I moaned in pain as I ran towards the shack, waving my arms in the air and screaming. I can hide there, I thought in a panicked moment. But maybe there’s someone home, maybe they have a phone, maybe I can call 911 and send for an ambulance! With a heavy heart, I noticed that there was no car in the driveway. The pavement was cracked and split, with weeds and grass growing through. I stubbed my toe on a broken piece of concrete and howled with pain, grabbing my foot and hopping through the air. The sheet fell down about my body and I cried out, reaching down and pulling the thin material around my naked curves. “Help!” I screamed as I pounded on the ramshackle door. “Help me! Somebody, please! Help!”

Tears burned hot tracks down my cheeks as I slammed my fist into the wooden door over and over again. Pain shot through my arm but I kept beating on, even after I had begun to realize that the shack was abandoned. “Help!” I yelled once more. “Please, somebody! Please help me!” My only answer was silence. For a brief second, I closed my eyes and wished all of this away. Soon, this will be over, I prayed as I wrapped the sheet tight around my body. The heat of the midday had given way to a cooler, dusky atmosphere, and the lack of humidity made my whole body feel as though I was covered in dust. I knew I had to do something, and fast. If I didn’t hurry, Mack would come and find me and drag me back home in chains. My eyes teared up again but this time I blinked the hot salt water away. No, I thought fiercely as I began to stumble away from the ramshackle little cottage. No, I won’t let him find me. Besides, Carlsbad isn’t my home. My home is with Dennis, no matter where we may be. As I ran back towards the road, hope soared inside of me. There, maybe a couple hundred feet away, was a car. I darted out into the center of the road, ignoring the way the hot pavement burned my feet. “Help!” I yelled loudly, waving my arms around in the air. “Help me! Please!” The car came closer and closer. As it approached, I squinted and shielded my eyes from the sinking sun with my palm. I couldn’t quite make out who was driving – a person of indeterminate sex, with a puffed cloud of white hair. Thank god, I thought. It’s some little old lady. She’ll feel sorry for me. I’ll tell her that I’m pregnant! But as the car came closer and closer, I panicked when I realized that it didn’t seem to be slowing down. As deftly as I could, I ran back and forth on the road until the soles of my feet were bloody and torn. “Please!” I begged loudly. “Please stop!” I stood there, waving my arms until I saw the car begin to slow. As soon as the car had screeched to a stop in the middle of the deserted road, I ran towards it, arms outstretched. It was, in fact, a small elderly woman. She was wearing big block sunglasses and a pink sweater embroidered with cats. “Please,” I begged again. I rapped on her rolled-up window with my head, trying to make my face look as desperate as possible. “Please help me! Please!” The woman shook her head nervously and I yelled loudly in frustration. As I reached for the handle of the door, she locked the car from the inside and then the car began to move forward. When I realized that she meant to drive off without me, I let out a scream of fright and pounded against her window harder than ever. The sheet slipped from my body, exposing my ripe breasts, and I watched as a look of horror spread across the old woman’s face.

In a matter of seconds, her car was nothing but a small bump on the horizon. Shit. I felt like I’d been defeated. Like Mack had won – and he’d barely even looked at me after bursting through the cabin door. He’d been focused on Dennis, but I knew that I was next on his list. And unless a miracle happened, I knew that I wouldn’t be safe for much longer. Lowering a hand to my belly, I began to rub my baby bump. “I’m so sorry,” I whispered. “I know – you have every reason to think I’m the world’s worst mother. But you were wanted, little baby.” A tear escaped my closed lids and dripped down my cheek. “I wish I could have given you a better life.” A sound from behind me made me jump. When I whirled around on the road, I saw something so beautiful that I wanted to cry. It wasn’t the pinkish orange of the sun fading in the sky, or the lone cactus that stood a few feet away. It was a semi rig, big and powerful. I watched in amazement as the truck sped towards me. Without even thinking about what I was doing, I raised my arms into the air and let out a powerful scream. I waved my arms back and forth as my throat strained with the loudest cry for help that I’d uttered yet that day. The driver of the semi leaned on the horn and the loud roar assaulted my ears. As he approached me, I heard the brakes squealing. My heart filled with hope as the semi glided to a stop right in front of me. As quickly as I could, I ran towards the truck with my arms outstretched. “Help!” I screamed one last, final time. “Please! Help me!”

Chapter Twenty-Three Dennis As Mack hit me again and again, I was aware that I was beginning to lose consciousness. The blows rained down upon my head like heavy bricks of lead and I felt my eyes rolling back towards my brain as a particularly brutal blow landed on my cheek. “Fight me like a man,” Mack growled. He leaned down and grabbed me by the collar, pulling me up off the floor. Air rushed into my lungs and I put both hands on Mack’s shoulders and pushed him away with all the power I had. Miraculously, it worked – his body flew across the room and slammed into the opposite wall with a sickening thud. I struggled to my feet and wiped my hands on my bare thighs. Mack groaned, his eyelids fluttering. I knew he wasn’t going to pass out, but I had to act quickly if I wanted to rescue Anita. My head was pounding and there was so much blood in my mouth that I had to breathe through my nose, but I knew that I was alive. My heart was pounding in my chest – a singular, desperate rhythm to the beat of Anita’s name. I winced when I remembered that she’d darted outside in nothing but the bed sheet. She hadn’t even taken her purse – it was still in the corner of the living room, slumped down to the side. Somehow, I felt even sicker when I realized that. Despite everything she’d been through, Anita was currently more fragile than ever. I knew, without even having to think about it, that she couldn’t take much more. It would kill her – the pregnancy hormones had already been enough to make her paranoid and insecure. And now that Mack had invaded our cabin, the safe space that I’d worked so damn hard to create for Anita, she wasn’t going to feel like she could sleep with both eyes closed for a long, long time. “Dennis,” Mack growled. He stumbled to his feet, falling once, then righting himself on the thin carpet. “Dennis, you motherfucker. I gave you a life, and this is how you choose to repay me!” His voice faded in and out, and I watched carefully as he stumbled, bracing himself against the dirty wall with one hand. “Mack, get the fuck out,” I growled. “This is my home, and you ain’t welcome here.” Mack laughed. The sound almost scared me – it was deep and sonorous, like he was feeling just fine. He shook his head, spitting once on the floor. “I’m not leaving,” Mack growled. “I’m not leaving until you’re nothing but a puddle of blood and guts on the floor. Not until Anita’s back. And she’s coming with me, you asshole.” He grinned, showing two front teeth smeared with his own blood. “You’re a fuckin’ fool if you think you’ll make it back to Carlsbad. I have half a mind to kill you right here and string your dead ass up in front of this shitheap.” Mack burst into laughter and gestured around. “Jesus, Dennis! This is the kind of shit life you was lookin’ to get away from! Don’t you remember that?” I felt myself shaking with rage as I stared him down. Mack curled his fingers into a fist and took a swing, but this time I managed to duck and Mack went stumbling forward. As he staggered past me, I

kicked him square in the gut. Mack howled, clutching his stomach as he crashed into one of the bedroom walls. Plaster and dust rained down from the ceiling and the walls of the small cabin shook, threatening to collapse around us. “I’ll tear this place apart!” Mack laughed bitterly, shaking his head from side to side. His skin was sweaty and pale and I could tell that he wasn’t in the best shape of his life. I hoped I looked better than I felt. My head was swimming and blood was draining into my stomach so fast that I knew I’d be puking before too much longer. Worst of all, my heart was beating a staccato rhythm in my chest, threatening to burst free of the skin and ribs that held it in. “Fuck you,” I mumbled under my breath. I stepped forward and swung back, landing a powerful blow at the back of Mack’s head. He rushed forward and I ducked out of the way just in time to see him crash into the old dresser Anita had found for me at Goodwill. The particleboard and wood crashed to the floor and Mack fell on top of the rubble, twisting an ankle and screaming in pain. I knew that part of me, deep down, should have realized that what I was doing was wrong. Attacking my boss was a cardinal sin to the MC – something so bad that it warranted death. Those were the rules, and had been since I patched into the Iron Titans. But instead of guilt, I felt nothing. At least, nothing but a cruel kind of satisfaction that I’d managed to fend off the toughest man I’d ever known. Mack looked up at me, blood dripping into his eyes from a deep gash on his forehead. “Dennis, you’re a fuckin’ rotten traitor,” he said. His voice was steely and cold. “You oughta die for even thinkin’ about hitting me back.” “I don’t give a shit,” I snarled, stepping closer and kicking Mack in the gut. His body jerked and twitched into the air, but somehow he managed to right himself and stagger forward with his arm outstretched. The blow hit me in the jaw before I even saw it coming, and then I was reeling across the bedroom with my hand clutched to my face. “Oh? You don’t give a fuck?” Mack laughed again before kicking me hard in the thigh. The blow sent pain spreading through my lower body and suddenly I was on the floor, legs akimbo, helpless in front of the man I’d formerly worshipped. “No,” I managed to stutter. “I don’t give a shit, Mack. What you did was wrong. Beating and abusing Anita for all those years, just because she was smaller than you and you could land a punch?” I laughed, despite the horrific pain in my chest. “You’re a fucking bully, Mack. That’s all you fuckin’ are.” Mack reached down and grabbed me by the shoulder, yanking me into the air. When we were eye to eye, he dropped me, then swung out and punched me hard in the gut. I gasped and choked as the air rushed out of my lungs. For a few seconds, everything around me went black and fuzzy. It was like I was seeing fireworks explode behind my eyes. “I’m a fucking man,” Mack growled. “And if you were a good one, you’d realize that you’re nothing but scum, Dennis. I took you in! I took you in off the fuckin’ street and gave you a chance, even when

you had nothing but that shitty chink bike!” He shook his head. “And this is what I get for trusting you?” He scowled and rubbed his forearms like he was rolling up his sleeves. Dazed and bleeding, I stepped back. The thoughts swarming around in my brain were almost more intense than the fight my body had experienced. But now I knew something that I would never have realized before: Joining the Iron Titans, an outlaw gang, hadn’t been the escape from all those goddamned abusive families. The Iron Titans had just been yet another abusive family wrapped in leather, with tattoos and shiny chrome road hogs. “Fuck you,” I mumbled as I stepped backwards, out of the bedroom and into the hallway. When Mack rushed at me again, I was ready for it. I kneed him square in the face as he lowered his head into my belly. At first, I was worried the blow wasn’t enough. But then Mack released his grip around my stomach and fell over, howling with his hands pressed to his nose. His face was covered in blood. The bedroom itself looked like the scene of a brutal crime: furniture destroyed, blood everywhere, the goddamned ceiling half caved in. It turned my stomach, almost as badly as the realization that I’d done all of this bad shit to myself. Before Mack could come at me again, I ran outside. There was a strange car in the driveway. Alarm soared through my body until I realized the man in the driver’s seat had fallen asleep. His chin was tilted up and he was snoring so loudly I could hear him from six feet away. I blinked, rooted to the spot in terror. Get moving, you fuck! The thought was enough to jolt me into action and as quickly as I could, I ran out to the street where my old truck was parked. I always kept a spare key tucked in the visor above the driver’s seat. There was a loud slam behind me. I whirled around, only to see Mack darting out of the cabin and climbing into the car. There was a brief pause, then the loud sound of a smack. I watched in horror as the driver woke up. Mack shook him by the shoulders and yelled something I couldn’t hear from where I stood. I launched myself into the old truck and fumbled around for the spare key. Come on, come on! Sweat poured down my face and I gritted my teeth as my fingers flopped around on top of the hot leatherette visor. Finally, my fingers made contact with a piece of hot metal. Crying out in triumph, I grabbed the key and jammed it into the ignition. A quick glance behind me told me that Mack was still screaming at the driver of his car. They weren’t moving yet, and he had a hand pressed up to one of the massive cuts in his face. My stomach twisted and turned and threatened to empty its contents all over the dashboard of the truck as I desperately pumped the clutch and tried turning the engine over again and again. “Come on!” I yelled, slamming my free hand into the plastic steering wheel. The horn honked but finally I heard the telltale roar which told me I’d managed to get the truck running. I yanked the gearshift with my right hand and groaned loudly as pain shot up my arm. My wrist was swollen and sore – I could tell that it was probably broken – and I howled in agony as I shifted the truck into gear.

My foot slammed down on the gas. As I shot down the street, away from the cabin, I could barely feel the pain over the adrenaline coursing through my body. I’m doing it, I realized. I’m getting away from him. Now I just have to find Anita! Oh, god— Anita! Where is she? My truck shot down the street and I had to slap myself in the face to stay conscious after I breezed through a stop sign without even slowing down. I was close to the highway, and I was already doubting my ability to drive all the way to the hospital. I looked as closely as I could as I drove through the quiet streets, but there was no sign of Anita anywhere. I even looked for the discarded sheet as I skidded around the corners of the sleepy little Utah town. But each empty street was another blow to my hope and confidence. If I couldn’t find her, if she’d gotten hurt, I’d never be able to look at myself in the mirror again. A sudden sharp pain in my head made me squint and moan in agony. As the familiar sensation of blood pounding through my veins washed over me, I realized that I had a bad concussion. Everything was swarming and the road doubled in front of me, twisting to the right and left with alarming serpentine curves. “Gotta hang on,” I groaned as I tightened my grip on the steering wheel. The truck began to rock back and forth and I kept my foot on the gas pedal, pressed close to the floor. There was something big in front of me – something that looked a train. I squinted but the object didn’t move. A train, I realized. Maybe Anita’s on it! Maybe she saw the train! I kept the truck moving forward, staring out of the windshield and praying for a miracle. The road kept twisting and snaking around but I managed to keep the truck righted, even as my vision blurred over. When I felt the impact of the crash, Anita’s face flashed into my mind. Everything around me went black except for her radiant white smile, those big brown eyes. She was staring at me, all dressed in white. She kept reaching out and stroking me with her fingers. “It’ll be okay,” Anita whispered soothingly. “Just hang on, Dennis. You can hang on for me.”

Chapter Twenty-Four Anita The trucker stared back at me in shock. He was an older man – he almost looked my father, except with a stringy yellowish beard and a stained blue bandanna wrapped around his neck. “What the hell happened to you?” He cleared his throat. “I mean— Ma’am, are you okay?” I didn’t answer. Instead, I launched myself up and into the safety of his truck cab. The trucker stared as he realized I was wearing only a sheet. I’d tried to keep the loose ends wrapped around my body for the sake of modesty, but after running what felt like miles in the desert heat, I knew that I was probably a disaster. My long brown hair was twisted into dirty clumps and my bangs kept flopping in my face. As I opened my mouth to speak, I began to shake and shiver in the truck of the cab. Relief washed over me in great hot waves and I let out a gasp as a fresh wave of tears started up. “Ma’am, what the hell happened to you?” The trucker’s voice was soft and genuine. “Are you okay?” I nodded miserably. “Can you please take me to the hospital? Please?” My voice came out as a hysterical whimper. “I’m pregnant, and I’m so worried about my baby. And my boyfriend – the father – he’s hurt! And I need to—” “Shhh,” the trucker said soothingly. He reached over and patted me awkwardly on the shoulder. I frowned until I realized what he was doing – groping for the seat belt. As he pulled it over my body and clicked it into place, he sighed. “Please help me,” I repeated. “There’s a man – a really bad man – and he’s coming after me. He could be right behind us. We need to go! We need to go, right now!” Frustration welled up inside of me as the trucker stared at me. “Ma’am, are you sure I can’t just call the police? And let them handle it?” “No!” I shrieked loudly. “Please! The hospital, please!” The trucker nodded. He swallowed loudly, then shifted the truck into gear and we began to roll forward. As the ground underneath the semi rig began to disappear, I slumped back into the seat. I’m okay, I thought desperately. I’m okay, and nothing bad is going to happen to me. I’m okay. Now that I was out of immediate danger, my thoughts turned back to Dennis. I cringed as I remembered him hunched over, beaten badly by Mack. I wished that I could have done anything other than just leave him. I hadn’t wanted to go – he’d insisted! But that didn’t make me feel any better. We’d been so close to becoming a real family, and now I was terrified that I’d never have a family again.

The trucker cleared his throat. “Ma’am, where did you come from? I swear, you just darted into the road! But this area here is real deserted. Did you hitch a ride out here? Shouldn’t do that,” he added. “It’s not real safe, you know. If you were my daughter, I wouldn’t want you out here doin’ that kinda thing.” “I didn’t hitch,” I said softly. I wiped my cheek with the now-filthy corner of the sheet. “I live here. St. George, Utah.” The trucker stared. He slowed down for a red light and I cringed internally, almost wanting to reach over and steer the truck through the intersection myself. “A cute little thing like you? Livin’ all the deserted way out here?” “Well, it’s a long story,” I said slowly, willing the light to turn green. “I’m from California, actually. Carlsbad.” The trucker laughed. “Shit, and you left California to come live out here?” I managed to smile wryly even though my heart was beating a panicked, hasty rhythm in my chest. “By way of Colorado,” I said quietly. “This wasn’t… Well, it was kind of a quick decision to stay here,” I said. “But my boyfriend and I live in a cabin, probably a couple of miles from here.” The man nodded. “And… Y’all had a fight or somethin’?” He snickered. “I know how those pregnancy hormones make women real nuts. My wife was the same way. She’d about have a crying fit every time she dropped a glass of milk when she was pregnant with our kids.” It seemed easier to lie. “Yeah,” I said. I leaned over to the window and glanced into the side-view mirror. Blessedly, there was no one following us. I thought back with a shiver to the car I’d seen parked in the driveway of the cottage. It wasn’t a car I’d seen before – it was a newer model with a big engine and big tires. The kind of thing a man would drive if he wanted to intimidate someone. I had no doubt in my mind that Mack’s car could easily outpace Dennis’ truck. I just hoped it wouldn’t come to that. “Now, see here,” the trucker was saying idly as he guided the truck around a tight curve. “You’re real young, you need to get out and see the world before you get too tied down.” He chuckled. “My wife would say the same thing – she was always of the mind that girls had to get out and do a little walkin’ before they could settle down in some small town.” I bit my lip until I tasted salty, metallic blood seeping into my mouth. “Well, I had kind of a hard time with things,” I said slowly. “I think I’ve had enough experience. I’m ready for a real quiet family life now.” The trucker threw his head back and hooted. “Well, you’re gonna have your little family soon enough.” He glanced down at my belly. “How far along are you?”

I blushed. “Seven months,” I said. “Well, twenty-eight weeks.” I frowned. “I still don’t get why everyone says you’re pregnant nine months. You’re not – each of those months is like, four weeks!” “Hang on,” the driver said sharply. When I glanced over at him, I saw that his posture was rigid. I screamed as I looked out the windshield. There was an old truck – Dennis’ old truck – directly in front of us. I braced myself for the crash, pushing my hands against the dashboard and pushing myself back into the seat as powerfully as I could manage. The impact was still enough to suck the breath out of my body and I felt my torso fly forward, held in place by the nylon strap of the seat belt. I screamed, biting my tongue and tasting more blood. The truck shuddered, then screeched to a stop. When I opened my eyes, I was horrified. Dennis’ little old truck had been crushed against the grill of the semi. There was fluid leaking from the hood and steam was rising rapidly from the point of impact. The trucker was slumped over the wheel, muttering incoherently. I reached over and grabbed his shoulder, shaking him violently. “Hey!” I yelled. “Hey, you gotta wake up now!” I shook him back and forth until my arm ached. “You gotta get my boyfriend out of that truck and take him to the hospital!” The trucker didn’t respond. His eyes fluttered closed and he went silent. His breath was still coming, slow, and I realized with a feeling of dread that he wasn’t going to be able to help me any longer. If I wanted to save Dennis, I would have to do it myself. Gritting my teeth, I fumbled with the seat belt until it snapped open. My body slumped forward and a renewed sense of dread fluttered through my body when I realized that the semi had risen off the ground, crushing the front of Dennis’ truck underneath. Pushing open the door, I leapt to the ground, crying out as the soles of my feet landed on the hot, jagged pavement. The only sound I could hear was the blood pounding in my ears as I ran towards Dennis’ truck. Steam and grease were hissing from the engine and the air smelled foul, like burning rubber. Tears came to my eyes and I blinked them away, darting towards the driver’s side. I gasped when I saw Dennis, slumped over the wheel, eyes closed. The side window had broken in the crash and I reached in, ignoring the sharp pain that shot up my arm when the glass shards sunk into my soft flesh. Wrapping my hand around the door handle, I pulled the door open. Dennis fell into my arms— Of course he hadn’t been wearing a goddamn seat belt. But he was breathing; I could see his chest rising up and down hastily. His wrist was swollen and turning blue. I wondered if Mack had broken it, or if Dennis had hurt himself in the crash. There was so much blood on his face that I could barely look at his features, but I forced myself to glance him over and try to assess damage.

“Dennis, come on,” I grunted. “I need you to get moving. We gotta get to the hospital – come on. I got a truck, you just gotta come with me.” Dennis groaned and shifted in my arms but he didn’t stir. Gritting my teeth, I pulled him out of the driver’s side and began hauling his body back towards the truck. He was heavy, but I felt stronger than I’d ever felt in my life. There was something powerful and hot running through my veins and I only had to listen to the sound of my heart beating to realize that I was enduring a powerful rush of adrenaline. As I pulled Dennis back towards the truck, he groaned again. His mouth opened and I winced when I saw that he had at least two broken teeth. His tongue was covered in blood, but his jaw seemed to be working. The blood on his face was mostly from a shallow-looking cut on his forehead: after I’d wiped the blood away, he looked much better, although still pale and sicker than I’d ever seen him. Dennis’ close-cropped blonde hair was filled with blood and what looked like plaster dust, and I began to pray that I’d just be able to look into his green eyes again. Please live, I prayed as I dragged Dennis closer to the semi. The air was silent and hot, aside from the steam hissing from Dennis’ truck. I couldn’t hear the roar of Mack behind us, but I knew that he couldn’t be far behind. If Dennis had managed to give him the slip, even for a moment, I knew that Mack was capable of catching up. Besides, he’d had that stooge with him – some kid sleeping in the car. I shuddered with fear as I thought about Mack finding Dennis and me on the road like this, bleeding and dazed and barely clothed. The sheet slipped down the front of my body as I dragged Dennis closer to the truck. I was sweating like hell and it was hard to keep Dennis’ body gripped tightly in my arms. My hands ached and my spine was screaming in pain but finally, I managed to get Dennis back towards the open passenger door of the rig. I climbed in first, then braced myself against the seat and pulled Dennis into the cab of the truck. His body flopped like a rag doll against the side of the truck and I cringed as his head whacked into the glass window. “I’m sorry, baby,” I mumbled as I finished dragging Dennis inside. “Sorry about your head. But I had to get you inside.” The trucker was still unconscious. He was snoring slightly, like an infant, and his body was slumped against the steering wheel. A thin trickle of blood cascaded down his forehead. With all of my strength, I unfastened his own seat belt and then dragged him towards me. The trucker was heavier than Dennis – I could feel my adrenaline rush leaving my body as I tightened my grip on his sleeves and yanked with all of my might. Gritting my teeth, I groaned and exhaled and pulled. Finally, the trucker’s body slid along the seat. Sweat was pouring down my forehead as I leaned the trucker against Dennis, strapped them both in, and climbed over the trucker’s body. I’d never driven a rig before. Hell, I could barely even drive a stick. Mack always used to make fun of me, say that I was a dipshit because I couldn’t manage to make a manual keep going without leaving the transmission on the road behind me. Fuck you, I thought as his face popped into my mind. I’m fucking done with you, Mack.

Grunting loudly, I managed to shift the truck into gear and pull away from Dennis’ truck. I groaned when I saw the damage – I didn’t know much about cars, but I knew Dennis would never be able to drive it again. The grill was completely flattened and the front axle was broken, with one wheel almost completely horizontal. A lump swelled up in my throat as I stepped down on the gas and drove around the truck, righting the rig on the road. The hospital was only a little over a mile away. All I had to do was get there safely, and then everything would be okay. My heart was pounding as I fumbled with the controls of the big truck. Oddly, it felt kind of intuitive to drive. The wheel was so big that it grazed my thighs whenever I turned, and the bulb of the clutch fit perfectly into my fist. The sound of a blaring horn made me jump into the air. For a moment, I thought it was my own doing and I pulled my hands away from the center of the rig’s steering wheel like it had burned me. Then I heard the horn again, and a shiver of fear went crawling down my spine. No, I thought desperately. No, please not Mack. Fear raced through my veins as I dared to glance in the side view mirror. Sure enough, the same car that had been parked in front of the cottage was following close behind. Mack was in the passenger seat, leaning with his head out of the window and shouting something unintelligible. My gut twisted and cramped and I moaned, shifting around on the seat as I pressed my foot closer to the floor. The gas pedal yielded to my push and the rig shot forward – I could feel the truck gathering speed by the second. Mack’s car stayed close behind, swinging and swaying wildly on the road. For a moment, I was tempted to hit the brakes hard. I wanted to see what would happen – whether or not Mack would crash into the truck. Then I looked down at Dennis. He was slumped over his side, his head resting on the unconscious trucker’s shoulder. A thin trickle of blood was dripping out of his mouth and down his chin, and one of his eyes was swollen shut. I saw dried blood caked around his nostrils and a fresh blast of anxiety billowed up inside of me. I knew then that there was no way I could purposefully cause another crash. Dennis was obviously in bad shape and he needed a doctor desperately. I didn’t feel well either. I knew that it was probably just the anxiety, but I had a twisting feeling in my gut that I couldn’t keep ignoring. It’s probably nothing, I told myself as I shot through an intersection. Mack was close on my heels – his car ran the red light and swerved behind the rig. I watched in horror as Mack leaned out of the window and waved his arm in the air. I glanced down at my belly. I can’t let him find out that I have you, I thought to my baby. I can’t let him find out – then he’ll make our lives hell. We have to get away from him, and we have to stay away from him. Furthermore, I knew that if I made Mack’s car crash into the back of my truck, it would be linked back to me. Terror whistled through my body as I thought of what would happen. Maybe Mack could use the crash to say that I wasn’t a fit mother, that he was only anxious about the safety of his child. He’d tell them all about how I ran off and shacked up with some other guy while I was still pregnant. I shuddered. I knew that abused women weren’t often treated well in the eyes of the law. It was always somehow their fault. I’d seen the documentaries, back when I’d still lived with

Mack. It was one of the reasons why I’d never tried to leave before I did. There was one special, I remembered, that had chilled me to the bone. A woman’s husband had started beating her after they’d had a child together. Before, he’d been the perfect gentleman: attentive, jealous whenever he felt like she wanted him to be, good in bed. A provider. And then as soon as she’d had a child, the tables turned. He’d turned abusive incrementally, first telling her that she was stupid and worthless, then starting to beat her black and blue. She felt like she couldn’t leave him – she was a housewife who stayed home all day with the child. He constantly reminded her of that, that she’d never be able to make a living outside of the home. Finally, she’d grown brave one day and taken the little girl to her parents’ house. She’d told them everything, and then her husband had shown up at the door, charming and apologetic. She didn’t want to go home with him, but her mother insisted. I remembered exactly what the woman had said: “It’s always better to try to fix a marriage then give a child a broken home. No child deserves that.” So she’d gone home with him. And then he’d killed her. The documentary had been all about the little girl, and how she’d grown up in the foster care system because her father was in jail and her mother was dead. Back when I’d seen it, I’d vowed that I’d never let things get that bad with Mack. That was before things had been bad all the time, before I constantly had a fat lip and a black eye. But now I knew that if Mack caught me, if something bad happened, that documentary would become my life. My child would probably grow up with Mack while I either rotted six feet under or in some prison for wayward women. I shivered. The horn blared again – a shrill, horrifying sound that cut through the air. It was a single note that had always irritated me, but never struck fear into me the way it did now. As it sounded over and over, I knew that the sound would always haunt me. A splitting pain ratcheted through my body and I cried out, wrapping my fingers tightly around the wheel and clutching as hard as I could. Tears had welled up in my eyes by the time the cramp faded, and my chest hurt for want of air. I’d never experienced a pain like that – it was so sharp that it had knocked the breath right out of me. I blinked and stared down at the road as a new sense of panic began to take hold of my body. Behind the rig, Mack’s car swerved and swirled around on the road. He began to creep up on the right side of the truck and I cried out and leaned down on the horn, letting the rig swing towards the right. I gritted my teeth and kept turning the wheel until Mack was almost off the road. Dust was clouding the air as Mack’s tires churned the earth to the side of the highway. I coughed and blinked and finally, the rig shot forward and Mack’s car spun around and was left in the dust. A feeling of hope came over me. The hospital was in the distance – all I had to was get there before Mack, somehow explain everything that had happened. The small cloud of hope vanished when I saw Mack’s car reappear on the road behind me. There’s no way you’re going to get there first, I thought sadly as I pressed on. He’s going to get there at the same time, and before you know it, you’ll be heading back to Carlsbad in a coffin.

I felt utterly defeated. Oddly enough, I wasn’t even saddest for myself. The most painful feeling swirling through me, the most acute sense of distress, was all coming from fear for my baby. I felt like I’d completely failed my child, and I wasn’t even technically a mother yet. I’d failed them by not managing to keep them away from Mack, their rightful father and the biggest asshole to walk the earth since Judas. “I’m so sorry,” I said, resting a hand on my belly. I’d had to slow the rig to enter the highway, and now I was speeding up as I attempted to merge. A few cars back, Mack’s car darted in and out of traffic, staying right on my heels as I fell in with the other traffic on the highway. The sound of a horn startled me – I looked down to the side to see Mack’s car slowly inching up on the left. Gritting my teeth, I swung the rig out of the lane. Mack yelled something angrily through the windshield of the car as his driver slammed on the brakes and the car fell behind. The exit for the hospital was just to the side. With a quick, silent prayer, I swung the rig across the lanes of the highway and sped up on the exit ramp. I wasn’t even looking behind me for Mack’s car as the rig pulled up the hospital drive. I kept going past the regular entrance and slowed the brakes, coasting into the emergency lane that was reserved for ambulances. Immediately, orderlies and attendants were swarming the truck. I didn’t even heed the looks of anger on their faces as I opened the door and slid out to the pavement. I couldn’t stop the grin that was spreading across my face, either. I finally did it, I thought distantly as two nurses in blue scrubs rushed towards me, pushing a gurney between them. I didn’t even have a chance to get a word in before the nurses grabbed me by the shoulders and hoisted me up onto the gurney. I cried out as the sheet fell from around my body but one of them was ready and waiting with a hospital gown that she shoved on my outstretched arms. Cool air tickled my backside as the nurses pushed me down onto the gurney and began wheeling me inside. “How many weeks along are you?” “Twenty-eight,” I managed to croak. Now we were inside and the bright lights on the hospital ceiling were enough to make my eyes sting and water all over again. “Wait, there were two men in that truck! They need help, please! Please go back and help them!” “Ma’am, I need you to stay calm,” one of the nurses snapped at me. “I’m sure they’ll be helped – the truck will be checked.” “No!” I cried out and tried to sit up on the moving gurney to look behind me. I needed to know Dennis was taken care of before I could relax. “No, I need you to make sure!” “Ma’am, please!” The nurse glared down at me. “Please, I need you to stop twisting around!” She wrapped muscular fingers around my upper arm and held me firmly in place as the gurney rounded a sharp corner. I was beginning to feel dizzy from the speed and the insanely bright lights ahead. “Please,” I sobbed. My throat ached and tears splashed down my face. “Please, please go back and

help him!” The other nurse looked down at me. She wore a kinder expression and had soft blue eyes that turned up at the corners. “Everything’s going to be okay,” she said sweetly, reaching out and placing a hand on my shoulder. “I promise your friend will be just fine. Were you in a crash?” I nodded, suddenly unable to find the words to respond. “I was driving the truck,” I said faintly. The bright lights above me on the ceiling seemed to get brighter and hotter by the second as the nurses pushed me down another unfamiliar corridor. The walls of the hospital were painted beige and putrid green and I wanted to close my eyes so I wouldn’t have to look at them anymore. I blinked and realized that I was in the middle of a room, next to a hospital bed on a large, plastic frame. There were photographs of babies and stuffed animals on the walls, and I knew that they must have taken me to the maternity ward. As the nurses hoisted me up off the gurney and onto the bed, the open hospital gown flapped open and I blushed bright red. “Don’t worry,” the nicer-looking nurse said. She smiled. Her nametag read ‘Alice.’ “We’ve seen everything around here.” The bitchy nurse rolled her eyes. “Look how many tattoos she has,” she remarked to Alice, like I wasn’t even there. “I doubt she’s really embarrassed about anything.” “That’s unkind,” Alice said softly. She glanced down at me. “You’re really bruised up, sweetheart,” she said in a sing-song voice as she snapped on a pair of rubber gloves and began to prod at my belly through the thin material of the hospital gown. “Can you tell us what happened?” My mouth was dry and my head ached. Suddenly, I was exhausted – I felt like I could close my eyes and sleep for a million years. The adrenaline must be wearing off, I thought as Alice began to feel for a vein in my arm. No wonder I feel like this. I feel like I could be dead, except I’m still in pain. “I was in a crash,” I managed to croak. The other nurse, Cindy, grabbed a clipboard from the table and began making little marks with her pen as I talked. “I was in a semi-truck, and we hit a smaller truck— The truck ran right into us.” Cindy nodded briskly. “Were you hitch-hiking?” She frowned and tutted, sucking her teeth before I could reply. I suddenly hated her. Her dishwater blonde hair and dull grey eyes reminded me of Mack’s sarcastic glances. “That’s not good for you, you know.” “No,” I said. “Well, um,” I paused and lifted a hand up to my head, covering my eyes. “I wasn’t. No.” “She’s obviously delirious,” Cindy snapped. She reached over and shoved Alice’s arm away from my arm. “And you’re fucking up that IV. Jesus! You wanna give her a bruise the size of Texas? Let me do that.” I watched blearily as Cindy pushed Alice away, then grabbed a needle and slipped it into my

arm. It hurt more than it should have – I cried out and Cindy glared at me. “It’ll be okay,” Alice said soothingly. “Just keep talking. We need to keep you conscious if you have a concussion. Does your head hurt?” “I’m so tired,” I mumbled. “So exhausted.” Thoughts were swimming around in my head and I felt a small trace of panic trying to shove through my anxiety. I knew that if I didn’t tell Cindy and Alice exactly what happened – about Dennis and Mack and all of it – that something horrible would happen. Mack could storm into the hospital and drag me home without my consent. I might close my eyes and wake up in a trunk, tied up somewhere and unable to move. “Keep her awake!” Cindy barked. She pulled over an IV bag and hooked me up to it. “Do you have any medical allergies?” Her grey eyes flashed with irritation. I felt like bursting into tears. I shook my head. “No,” I said softly. “I don’t.” “What’s your name, dear?” “Anita,” I mumbled as Alice swooped in and pulled a thin blanket over my hips. “Anita MacPherson.” Alice made some notes on a clipboard. She lowered herself into a plastic chair at the side of the bed. “So you were in a car crash? Can you tell me the names of the drivers?” Pain shot through my body and I cried out, clutching my belly. My eyes screwed tightly shut and I whimpered as the searing hot cramp gripped me mercilessly. It lasted longer this time. When it was done, I sucked in greedy mouthfuls of air, my chest aching. “How long have you been having contractions?” Alice asked urgently. “Anita, you need to be honest with me – how long has this been going on?” “Not long,” I said softly. It hurt to speak, and my body was exhausted. “About an hour or two, maybe three.” Alice and Cindy exchanged looks. “Anita, I think you’re going into labor,” Alice said. “I’ll get the obstetrician on call – Dr. Marrows. He’s very good,” she added. “You’ll like him a lot.” I moaned loudly. “No,” I said. “I can’t be going into labor! You don’t understand! I have to—” “Hush now,” Alice said. She reached down and patted my hand with her own. “Anita, everything’s going to be fine. I want you to take a deep breath for me – can you do that?” I sucked in a big gulp of air. It tasted stale and medicinal, like the hospital itself. “She has a massive head wound,” Alice said. She gently pulled my brown hair to the side. “Look at

the contusion there. She must have hit herself in the crash.” “Well, we can’t exactly give her pain meds right now,” Cindy snapped. “Not if she’s gonna have this baby today.” “Check her dilation,” Alice said. The next thing I knew, Cindy was kneeling between my legs and pushing my knees apart. There was something cold and hard inside of me, and I cried out with humiliation. “She’s only five centimeters,” Cindy called back. “She’s not quite ready yet.” Alice smiled down at me. “That’s good,” she said. “See, you’re halfway there! You’re making good time.” She beamed. “This is always so exciting.” “Dennis is the father,” I croaked. My eyes rolled back in my head as another sharp contraction took hold in my gut. “It’s Dennis, not Mack!” “Confused, is she?” Cindy smirked. “Seems like someone was sleeping around a few months ago!” “Shut up,” Alice hissed. “Dear, just try to relax, okay. Just try to get some rest. You’re in some bad pain because of your injury, but we can’t give you anything too strong until after the baby is born.” “What about an epidural?” I looked into her eyes, silently begging for her to help me. “Can’t I have an epidural? Please?” Alice’s smile faltered. “Your contractions aren’t quite regular yet,” she said sweetly. “And the thing is, an epidural might slow those down. You’re already halfway there,” she said. “This might be a really easy birth. Do you want to try on your own?” A seize of pain gripped me between the legs and I howled, throwing my head back against the hospital mattress. Wet strands of brown hair lashed against my cheek and I struggled against the pain, gritting my teeth and fighting it with all my might. For a brief moment, I wondered when my hair had gotten wet. Then I twisted again and the sharp, pungent smell of sweat filled my nostrils. “Please,” I begged, gritting my teeth. “Please, it hurts so badly. Please!” A male doctor rushed in with a serious expression on his face. He wore rimless glasses and a bright white coat over his blue scrubs. Cindy rushed over to him and handed him the clipboard as he walked to the side of my bed. “Looks like we’re not quite ready to go yet,” he said after taking a look between my legs. I struggled against another sharp contraction after the doctor straightened up. “But if you want a late epidural, I’ll have Alice give you one.” Relief exploded in my body. “Please,” I begged. “Please, I have to stay awake. I can’t go to sleep.

But the pain…” I trailed off, sucking in my breath as a sharp cramp stretched across my belly. I felt myself tensing up, the muscles in my body clenching as I tried to fight off the pain. Go away, pain, I prayed. Please, please just stop! I have to tell them about Dennis, about the father of my baby! Please! “Stop fighting,” Alice said. She reached down to pat me on the shoulder and eased me up off the mattress until I was sitting. “You’re going to want to try to breathe through the pain,” she said. “I promise, it’s not that bad. Just breathe deeply and don’t clench up. You’re just making it worse for yourself if you do that.” I barely even felt the small needle slide into the base of my spine. As the medicine began to pump through my body, I was aware of an odd numbness from the waist down. When I realized that I couldn’t move my legs, I screamed in terror. “I’m paralyzed! Help! Help!” Cindy snickered. She rolled her eyes, then walked out of the room, leaving me with Alice. Alice rushed to my side and handed me a cup of water. “You’re just fine,” she said sweetly. “That’s the epidural working. Just relax now, can do you that for me, Anita?” I nodded blearily. “Dennis is the father,” I said, suddenly remembering what I had wanted to tell the nurse. “He’s the father. Don’t let… Don’t let that other man come in here. He’s bad, Alice!” I gripped her hand and squeezed her fingers until her face showed a clench of pain. “Alice, please don’t let that man hurt my baby!” Alice laughed nervously. She pulled her hand away from mine. “I’m going to let you rest now,” she said. “If you can get some sleep, try to do so, okay?” “No!” I cried out. “Please, please don’t go! Please wait with me!” Alice crossed her arms and sighed. “You poor thing,” she said. “Is there someone I can call? That man… Dennis? Should I call him?” “He was in the truck with me,” I said quickly. “I was trying to tell you, when you first pulled me into the room! He was right there! He’s hurt!” Alice nodded. “I’ll try to look up his condition. Would you like me to do that?” Relief washed over me in a cool wave and I nodded. “Oh, please! That would be wonderful, thank you!” As Alice bustled out of the room, I sank back against the pillows. My head was still swimming but the pain had disappeared, at least from my lower body. I felt stiff and sore, but the cramps had finally

disappeared. I was even starting to get used to the numb feeling of the epidural – it was strange, but it wasn’t exactly unpleasant. At least it was better than the pain. I tried not to panic as I waited for the kind nurse to return. When I was alone, I realized it was the first time I’d been without someone by my side since the trucker picked me up. I felt a pang of guilt when I thought of the way he’d been slumped over the wheel, bleeding slightly from a wound to the head. I hoped that I hadn’t done too much damage to his truck. I hoped that maybe, somehow, I’d get the chance to apologize after this mess was over. My eyelids began to droop and my body felt strangely heavy. Oddly, I was still feeling pressure in my belly – but it was real pressure this time, not the pain that I’d felt before. I shifted uncomfortably in the bed, feeling somewhat dwarfed by the high plastic rails on each side. It was almost like being in a crib. Outside of the room, people walked back and forth. Snippets of their conversation would float into the room and I closed my eyes and tried to concentrate, trying to figure out whether anyone was talking about Dennis. Unfortunately, the nurses weren’t using names, and very little of the words that came back to me made any sense. “Please be okay,” I whispered softly as I rolled onto my side. Alice and Cindy had hooked me up to a variety of machines, including one that was monitoring my heart rate. I couldn’t be sure, but it seemed like it was going awfully fast. Worrying about the baby coming early was enough to make me sick. But I knew that as soon as I’d find out what had happened to Dennis, I’d probably be able to relax— Assuming the news was good. “Where is she?!” When I heard Mack’s loud voice from the hallway, I cried out in fear and pulled the blanket over my chest. “Where the hell is my wife?” “Excuse me, sir?” The calm voice of Dr. Marrow filled my ears and I could have cried with relief. “Who are you looking for?” “Anita MacPherson,” Mack replied. I shivered – he sounded calmer than he had in years. “She’s my wife, and I think she’s gone into early labor. We were in a car accident, and she’s not in the intensive care unit.” “Oh, Anita, yes. She’s right in here,” Dr. Marrow replied. “We can go see her together.” “No!” I cried out as Mack crossed the threshold of my room. Instantly, the feeling of safety and comfort that I’d built up in that little room vanished, leaving me with nothing but fear and dread. “No, keep him away from me!”

Dr. Marrow frowned as he and Mack approached my bedside. “She’s a little delirious, we think,” Dr. Marrow said. “Don’t mind her, she’s been saying strange things ever since she was brought in.” Mack looked at me and I shuddered as his eyes looked up and down my body. His mouth was smiling, slightly, but his eyes were hard and cold. “My poor wife,” Mack said mechanically. He stepped forward and picked up my hand. I tried to pull away and kick but he tightened his grip on my fingers and squeezed. It hurt and I cried out. “You’re hurting me!” I screamed. “Dr. Marrow, help! This man isn’t my husband! He’s abusive! He’s hurt me before!” Dr. Marrow shook his head. He gave Mack an embarrassed smile. “I’m so sorry,” he said. “She’s been difficult since she was brought in. I’m sure it’s just the delirium. We think she might have a very light concussion.” “I’m sure she’ll come around,” Mack said. He patted me on the belly and a feeling of hatred so strong that it made me nauseated swept over my body. “How’s the baby? You know I was worried about that, dear.” “It’s not your baby!” I cried, kicking and thrashing in the bed. The epidural made it hard to move, like all of my motions were underwater. “Help! Someone! Get him away from me!” “Anita, please,” Mack growled. “Don’t make a scene.” He turned towards Dr. Marrow. “Could I have a moment alone with my wife, please?”

Chapter Twenty-Five Dennis When I opened my eyes for the first time since the crash, I thought I was dead. I was in a bright white room. Everything was white. The walls, the ceiling, the floor. All brilliant, the brightest shade of white that I’d ever seen. I was lying in a bed, and even the bed was white. White sheets, white mattress. Bright white bedframe. “How are you feeling?” A woman walked into the room. She was wearing pink scrubs and had blonde hair piled on top of her head. She was pretty, but in older, tired sort of way. I could tell she’d been working for hours just by the circles under her eyes. “Where’s Anita?” I asked warily. “Where is she? Where am I?” The nurse pursed her lips. “I’m sorry,” she said, bringing her hands together in front of her. “I don’t know who you’re asking about.” Panic raced through my body and I sat up. Everything in my body hurt— my skin, my head, my limbs. Even my hair hurt. “Anita,” I said sharply. “The girl I was brought in with. We were in a car accident – I was in a truck that crashed…” I trailed off. Somehow, I thought I remembered Anita lifting me from the wreckage of the old truck and carrying me, but I knew that couldn’t be right. She was a full head shorter than I was, not to mention over seven months pregnant. I wasn’t sure what had happened, but I realized that I’d probably just imagined Anita helping me. My angel, I thought, before I could stop the words from forming in my brain. She saved me. “You were brought in through the emergency ward,” the nurse said. She licked her dry lips and sat down in a plastic chair by the side of the bed. “You were in a big semi-truck, a big rig.” She smiled. “Are you a truck driver?” I glanced at her name tag – ‘Nancy.’ “I need to know where Anita is,” I said urgently. “This is important – she’s my wife, and she’s pregnant. I’m the father of the baby, and I think she might have gone into early labor.” Nancy blinked. “I’ll check on that,” she said uncertainly. “Does your wife have the same last name, Dennis?” “MacPherson,” I replied. I lowered my head into my hands and started rubbing my temples. “Her last name is MacPherson.” Nancy nodded. “I’ll be right back,” she promised. “Stay right here,” she added. “Just a joke,” she said breathlessly when she saw my angry expression. She mumbled something unintelligible under her breath as she left the room.

I sighed and lied back into my bed, letting my eyes close. Even with my lids shut, I still saw bright white everywhere. I wondered how long I’d been out. My head ached so badly that even closing my eyes was painful. Red hot pain thumped between my eyes, at the back of my neck, and in my wrist. There was some kind of soft cast wrapped around my right wrist and my leg was in a brace. Slowly, the details of the fight began to return. I’d been in bed with Anita, safe and warm, and then Mack had burst through the door. We’d fought – I remembered him telling me that he was going to kill us both. Anita had darted out of the room, but only after I’d screamed at her to leave. She’d only been wearing a sheet. I couldn’t remember how I’d gotten in the truck. My memory was full of gaps and holes. When Nancy came back through the door, she wasn’t smiling. Immediately, I sat up in bed and stared at her. “What? What’s going on? Where’s Anita?” I groaned as I tried to climb out of bed – pain shot up my leg and I froze in place. Nancy shook her head and gently pushed me back down. “You’re not going anywhere,” she said firmly. “Anita is here, but there’s another man with her right now.” She cleared her throat and a pink flush came over her cheeks. “He’s also saying that he’s the father.” “No, no, that’s not right,” I said. I shook my head. “That guy – he’s real bad. She’s been trying to get away from him for months. He’s abusive. Used to beat the shit out of her every day.” Nancy clucked her tongue. I could tell what she was thinking –Great, what the hell do these white trash kids think of themselves? – but she didn’t say anything for a moment. Then she shrugged. “I’m sorry,” she said. This time, her voice had a note of chill to it. “But there’s really nothing I can do. If that man is the father, he has rights.” “She’s my wife,” I snapped back. “And I’m going to settle this now!” Nancy’s face contorted into a mask of horror as I grabbed the side of the bed and tried to lift myself up. She immediately rushed forward and pushed my chest back down to the mattress, but I grunted and shoved her to the side. There was a pain in the back of my left hand and I looked down to see an IV taped into the skin. Gritting my teeth, I ripped out the needle and tube with my right hand and tossed it to the ground. Standing up made me feel dizzy. Nancy rushed over to the door and peeked out, screaming for help as I made my way towards her. “Help! Somebody, we need backup! Orderlies! Help!” “I’m fine,” I said loudly. I stumbled and almost fell, the brace on my leg sliding on the chill linoleum hospital floor. “I just need to see Anita. Come on, Nancy,” I said, begging her with my eyes. “Please. You have to let me go.”

She pursed her lips and shook her head tightly. “You’re not going anywhere,” Nancy said primly. “Go on, back to bed!” I sighed. “I ain’t telling you twice,” I grumbled, pushing past her and limping quickly out of the room. “I’m going to see Anita!” In the hallway, I almost panicked at the sight of two orderlies rushing towards me. I broke into a painful run, limping down the hall and using the motion from my brace to propel myself forward. I could hear the soles of the orderlies’ shoes slapping against the floor but I didn’t look back – I knew that would just delay me. When I got to the end of the hall, I quickly glanced up at the sign. Shit. The maternity ward wasn’t labeled. I knew that I didn’t have any time to waste. As fast as I could, I took off to the right and hurled myself into an elevator with closing doors. Thankfully, it was empty. And the maternity ward was labeled inside the car – the third floor, two floors below where I was now. Jamming my finger against the button, I grinned as the doors finally closed with the orderlies right behind, in hot pursuit. A sharp pain hit me in the side and I cried out, gripping the side of the elevator car as I descended. I gritted my teeth and fought off the pain, breathing hard. I’m gonna make it, I realized. I’m in bad shape, but I ain’t dead. Mack, you haven’t won yet. But then I remembered that he was with Anita, and that I hadn’t won yet either. The elevator doors pinged open and I took off down the hall, glancing at the tags outside of each room. Sully, Nuniez, LaTedesco, Gutierrez, Monaco. Fuck! Where the fuck is she? I heard her voice before I saw the nametag outside of her room. Anita’s voice, and Mack’s voice, screaming at the top of their lungs. “Keep him away from me!” Anita begged in a way that shot rage through my heart. Those bastards, they’re not protecting her! This is a fucking hospital! Doctors are supposed to protect people who can’t protect themselves! The anger that had sprouted inside of me only grew faster and darker as I sprinted down the hall and through the door of Anita’s hospital room. “Anita!” I yelled. “Anita, I’m coming!” “Dennis!” Her shriek sent another stab of pain through my body. “Dennis, help me!” As I skidded into the room, I looked up to see Mack standing by Anita’s bed. He was wearing an odd expression – tranquil, but cold, like he’d been drugged. As soon as he saw me, the blank look slid off his face, replaced by a scowl. Anita was in bed, wearing a hospital gown, hooked up to monitors and an IV bag. Her belly looked bigger than ever under the sheets, and there was a huge gash across her forehead. She looked small and pale and her brown hair was tangled and matted down her back.

“Anita,” I said breathlessly. “Anita, I’m here.” A doctor turned to look at me. He had a smug expression and a white coat with his hands propped on his hips. “And you are?” He raised his eyebrows. “Don’t tell me we have another paternity claim.” “I’m the father,” I panted. “I’m with Anita. This guy,” I added, jabbing my finger towards Mack. “He needs to be dragged out of here in cuffs. He’s a rapist and a monster, and he beat the shit out of me.” I gestured towards the brace on my leg and my wrapped wrist. “He assaulted me, that’s the whole goddamned reason I’m here in the first place!” The doctor cleared his throat. “Sir,” he said. “I advise you get back to your bed.” He stepped towards the door and pushed a button before leaning close to a speaker. “Orderlies, I need assistance in room three-oh-four,” he said. “Quickly!” “No!” I snapped. “No! You can’t fuckin’ drag me out of here.” It was painful, but I dragged myself over to Anita’s bedside and reached out for her hand. “This is my wife, and I need to make sure she’s okay. I’m not leaving her until that asshole is arrested.” Mack turned towards me. Pure vitriol spread across his ugly face and he stepped forward, rubbing his forearms. “I didn’t beat the shit out of you as well as I could’ve,” he grumbled, swinging his arm back. “Hey!” The doctor reached forward and grabbed Mack by the arm. “What the fuck is going on?” “I told you,” I snarled. “This guy’s bad fuckin’ news. He’s the reason why I’m all dressed up like this. And he used to do worse to her,” I added, pointing towards Anita. “She was his girlfriend, but she left him because he wouldn’t stop beating her up. She was afraid for her life,” I said. “She thought he was going to kill her. And he threatened to kill her earlier today – to her face and after she’d left, when he was in the process of kicking my ass.” Two orderlies rushed into the room and crowded in front of the doctor. I winced as he lifted his arm. I was sure that he was going to point at me. “This man needs to be taken out of here,” the doctor said. He wasn’t pointing at me. He was pointing towards Mack. “And we need to call the police.” “Help me,” Anita moaned from the bed. I glanced over and felt a wave of sharp anxiety pass over my body as our eyes met. Her face was scrunched up in pain and she looked even paler than she had before. “It’s happening,” she moaned loudly. “Help!” The orderlies grabbed Mack and slowly dragged him out of the room. He put up a fight – kicking and punching and trying to bite the men who were holding him. But they were stronger, and after a wellplaced hand on the back of his neck, Mack went out of the room, looking as sullen as a convict.

Chapter Twenty-Six Anita There was something wet and sticky between my legs. When I looked down and saw the blood pooling between my thighs, I let out a cry of horror. “Help me! I’m bleeding!” I shrieked. “Help!” Dennis rushed over to my side and grabbed my hand. He looked horrible – one of his eyes was swollen shut and he had a massive purple bruise just starting to form on his cheek. His left leg was covered in a plastic brace and his right wrist was in a soft cast. Dennis twisted his fingers with mine. “You’re gonna be okay,” Dennis said confidently. He brought my hand to his mouth and kissed my fingers. “Anita, everything’s gonna be fine, I promise.” “Sir, you need to get back to your room,” Alice said. She stepped between Dennis and myself but I saw that she was smiling. “And we need to get you into the delivery room.” “It hurts,” I moaned softly. Alice pulled my bed away from the wall. She and Dr. Marrow pushed me out of the dull room, into the bright hallway. I tried to crane my head and look for Dennis, but he was nowhere in sight. “How much longer?” Dr. Marrow pulled the bed to a stop and checked between my legs. “She’s almost there. Eight centimeters. We should be able to get her there without interference.” “What?” I raised my head and tried to look at him. “What’s going on? Am I having my baby now?” Alice patted my shoulder as she rushed me down the hallway. “Stay strong,” she said. “Just breathe and save your strength. You’re almost done – then you can rest.” I wanted to fight her off. I wanted to climb out of the bed and run back to my hospital room, to pull Dennis close and let him hold me. But the pain was too much, and I closed my eyes. The sensation of being pushed through time and space was making me nauseated, and I turned my head to the side as a gush of sour vomit exploded from my mouth. Alice wiped my face with a cool towel as she and Dr. Marrow pushed me through a set of double doors and into a bright room with lights overhead. I tried to take a deep breath but the pain was back and suddenly more difficult to deal with than ever before. “Anita, you need to concentrate,” Dr. Marrow said. “I’m going to give you another dose of painkillers – I know you’re in agony right now. Alice is going to help you sit up, and I’ll make sure that you’re feeling better soon.”

Alice gripped my shoulder and helped me up. I vomited again as soon as I was sitting – the foultasting strands clung to my teeth and tongue even after I’d wiped my mouth. Alice held a kidneyshaped pan underneath my jaw and wiped my brown hair out of my face. “I’m going to inject the painkillers now,” Dr. Marrow said in his soothing voice. I closed my eyes. After a few seconds, a wave of numbness began to fall over me. “Thank you,” I said dreamily. Alice helped me lie back down. “Am I going to have a baby now?” Dr. Marrow shook his head. “Right now, it’s important for you to relax,” he said. “Anita, I want you to rest. I know you’ve been through a lot. It’s been a long day for you. But you’re going to need your strength. Can you try to sleep, for me?” “Do you promise Dennis is okay?” Dr. Marrow nodded. “I promise,” he said. “Now sleep, Anita. And when you wake up, you should be all ready to have a baby.” Dr. Marrow and Alice left the room, dimming the lights and closing the door as they left. It was a different room than before, with a small table and a screen. I smiled – I couldn’t help it, imagining my baby on the table, waiting for me to hold it. It’s going to be over soon, I realized. And everything’s going to be okay. I didn’t think that I’d be able to sleep, but my lids felt as heavy as iron doors. I’ll just close my eyes for a minute and try to relax, I thought. I’m so tired. Seconds later, I blissfully drifted off to sleep. “Mommy! Mommy!” I looked up to see a little girl standing in front of me. She had long brown hair combed into pig tails and bright, clear skin with green eyes. Dennis’ eyes. “I didn’t think you would look like that,” I said, surprising myself. “I didn’t think you’d have his eyes!” The girl giggled. “Well, he’s my daddy,” she said, seeming to know exactly what I was talking about. “Mommy, you’re going to be all better soon.” She came closer and sat on my lap. She felt so real – the weight of her, the slightly sweet scent coming from her hair. “I can’t wait to meet you!” I giggled. “That’s a funny thing to say,” I replied. “We’ve already met. We’re here, aren’t we?” The little girl laughed again. She wrapped her arms around my neck and pulled herself close. “Mommy, I won’t let you be sad anymore,” she said. “I won’t let you be sad the way you were with

him.” Her little voice turned into a growl and I realized that she was talking about Mack. “No, he’s not coming anywhere near us,” I said. “And I promise, you’re never going to be afraid of anyone like that.” I looked into her green eyes. The resemblance to Dennis was astounding – almost like he was staring right at me. “He’s going away for a long time, and you’re always going to tell your parents everything.” The little girl giggled. “Why everything, Mommy?” A lump formed in my throat and I looked to the sky so the tears forming in my eyes wouldn’t have a chance to drip down my cheeks. “Because,” I said. “When I was younger, I really hurt my parents. I wasn’t honest with them. And if I had been honest with them, everything would be different now.” “Don’t be sad,” the little girl said. She squeezed her arms around my neck. “You can always tell them that you’re sorry.” I shook my head. “I don’t think I can,” I said. “But I promise, I’ll always be a good mother to you. Even if it’s just the two of us.” I smiled at her. “I know you didn’t want me, Mommy,” the little girl said. “But that’s okay. I know I’m wanted now.” I stared at her. “That’s not true,” I said quickly. “You were always, always wanted.” I smiled and a tear fell down my cheek. “I promise.” “It’s time to wake up, Mommy,” the little girl said. She smiled at me and winked. “I’ll see you soon.” When I came to, there was a sharp pressure in my abdomen. Dr. Marrow and Alice were back, and the lights in the delivery room were bright and sharp. Alice grinned at me. “You were out for three hours,” she said. “Can you believe that?” I blinked at her. “Where’s my baby?” I asked drowsily. “Is she here yet?” Alice shook her head. “You’re almost ready to go,” she said. “You’re fully dilated. Dr. Marrow’s going to tell you when you can start pushing. Right now we’re just timing your contractions.” I watched as my belly grew hard under the hospital gown. I frowned. “Is that supposed to happen?” I shifted on the bed. “It feels so weird!” Alice laughed. She patted me on the head. “You’re fine,” she said. “Dr. Marrow?” “I want you to count to thirty, and then you can push,” Dr. Marrow said. He nodded and held out a stop watch. “Can you count with me?”

“I feel like I have to use the bathroom,” I moaned. “I feel like I have to push now.” I gritted my teeth and pushed hard until the air went rushing out of my lungs. “It really hurts,” I added, grabbing fistfuls of the sheet between my fingers. “Fuck!” “Not yet,” Dr. Marrow warned. “You want to save your strength.” He reached out and touched my stomach, gently prodding me. I shifted away from his touch – it didn’t hurt, exactly, but my whole body was uncomfortable and tense. “Gah,” I cried. Another contraction gripped me and I hunched over, pressing my chin to my chest. I was sure that I looked horrible – I could feel the skin on my face was flushed and hot – but I no longer cared. Alice pushed my sweaty hair away from the back of my neck and held a cool cloth over my forehead as I pushed again, this time straining so hard that my eyeballs began to ache. “It hurts!” “I know,” Alice said soothingly. “And push!” Dr. Marrow said quickly. “Come on!” He knelt down at the foot of the bed, between my spread legs. A sharp tearing sensation struck me between the legs and I cried out, moaning and thrashing. It felt like I was being burned all over, from over my belly to between my legs and back again. “I’m trying!” I growled through gritted teeth. I flopped back against the mattress. As a sharp contraction gripped my belly, I arched my back. “I’m going to hold a mirror down in front of you,” Dr. Marrow said. “You can watch that for the crowning.” He put a hand on my abdomen and pushed. “Should be any second now.” I watched in horror as he lowered a hand mirror between my legs, focusing on the swollen, puffy labia. “Push!” Dr. Marrow cried. “You’re almost there!” “God!” I strained, closing my eyes and pushed once more. The burning sensation intensified and I felt a sharp tearing in my lower belly. Something huge shot out of my body and I cried out. “I did it!” “That was the head,” Dr. Marrow said soothingly. “Just one more push, now.” Grabbing Alice’s hand, I squeezed her fingers and pushed hard. I cried out as I felt something pass between my legs. Then there was a cry. “My baby,” I cried weakly. “I want to see my baby, please.” Alice rushed over to Dr. Marrow. I was barely conscious as the two of them leaned their heads together, talking seriously. After a moment of being ignored, the panic began to set in. I struggled to raise my head, to see the baby in Dr. Marrow’s arms, anything. But I was feeling so weak that I could barely keep my eyes open, much less focus on sitting up and looking at my obstetrician. There was no sound in the room aside from bleeps and blips – my stomach went cold when I realized that my ears should be filled with the sounds of a baby sobbing. Why isn’t she making noise? I thought. What’s

wrong with her? “Help, please, I want to see my baby!” Still, nothing. I felt weaker than ever and while most of the pain was gone, I still felt an odd pressure on my belly. Dr. Marrow wrapped the infant in a white blanket and handed her away to another nurse. “You’re bleeding badly,” he said. “I’m going to take you in for an emergency operation.” Alice leaned over and placed a tube under my nose. “Count backwards from ten,” she said. “No!” I cried. “No! Where the hell is my baby? What’s going on? What’s wrong with me? Help!” I grabbed Alice’s hand and pulled her face close to mine, until I could see the white of her eyes shining with fear. “What’s going on? Help me please!” “Just hold on,” Alice soothed. “Anita, I need you to hold on.” That was the last thing I heard before everything around me went black.

Chapter Twenty-Seven Dennis Some bitch of a nurse shoved me back into a bed before the cops arrived. I heard them, though, talking right outside my room as the sadistic nurse plugged another IV into my tortured veins and started pumping me full of fluid. “You need to stay in bed this time,” she chastised me. “If you get up and start walking around again, we’ll be forced to sedate you.” I groaned. “I need to see Anita,” I growled. “She’s been gone for hours! Did she give birth? Is she okay?” “I don’t know,” the nurse replied. “I’ll find out as soon as I can. But you need to stay here and rest.” When the cops walked in the door five minutes later, I almost jumped out of bed again. There were two of them – one short and fat, the other tall and skinny. It was just like the movies. “Y’all in a buddy cop movie together?” I raised my eyebrows. “This don’t seem like the best place to film.” The shorter cop rolled his eyes. “You Dennis Collins?” I nodded. “Last time I checked, anyway.” “I’m Officer Darmody, and this is Officer Shrift.” “Pleased.” I rolled my eyes. “So, you here about Mack Dawson or what?” Darmody nodded. “Right,” he said. He pulled out a little notepad from his pocket and started flipping through the pages. “Macaulay Dawson. Twenty-seven years old. That right?” I burst out laughing. It hurt my ribs and jarred my leg, but I didn’t care. It felt fucking good to laugh after being through something so goddamned harrowing. “His real name is Macaulay? You’re shitting me.” Darmody didn’t laugh. “But he goes by Mack, that right?” I nodded. “I’ve only known him as Mack,” I replied. “Never even knew he had a real name.” “And you are?”

“You already know who I am,” I said uneasily. “Dennis Collins. Y’all said my name when you walked through the door.” Darmody and Shrift exchanged a glance. “Yeah, we just wanna know if you have any other aliases,” Darmody said. “You know. Like nicknames.” Of course they would think that I was a fucking crook, too. “Just Dennis,” I said. “Some people call me Collins. But that’s my real last name. You can look on my birth certificate and everything.” “You’re a real smartass,” Darmody snapped. “Especially for someone laid up like that.” He whistled. “What the fuck did you do, anyway?” My hands balled themselves into fists and I had to remind myself that it was a felony to assault an officer. “I helped his girlfriend escape,” I said. “Anita MacPherson. She’s in the hospital, too. She’s giving birth.” I raised my eyebrows. “To my baby.” Darmody looked down at his notes. “But she was Macaulay’s girlfriend, correct?” I snorted. “Shit, not for a long time now. She ran away about eight months ago,” I said, fudging the date slightly in my head. “He used to beat the shit out of her. He was really abusive, a real monster.” “And why did you let him?” “Excuse me?” “Why’d you let him beat her?” Darmody stepped forward, tapping the notepad with the tip of his pen. “Why didn’t you step in, be a real white knight about it?” “I didn’t know for a long time. Mack was the president of this motorcycle club, the Iron Titans. I was involved with them. He took me in, so I didn’t really like to question his judgment about his personal life. I always thought things weren’t as bad as that.” Darmody nodded slowly. “And you’re still involved with that club?” “No, sir. Quit a few weeks back. And I haven’t ridden with them in eight months.” Darmody nodded. “Anything else you can tell me about Macaulay?” “He pushes drugs. Heroin, coke, tons of pot. Pretty much everything. There’s a warehouse back in Carlsbad that’s full of that shit. You might want to write that down.”

Darmody snorted. “And this your way of trying to get that asshole off the streets?” I shrugged. “Does it have to be that obvious?” I pointed to my wounded wrist and leg. “He’s the fuckin’ reason why I’m like this, Darmody. He’s the one who put me here. And if he’d gotten his hands on Anita before you showed up, he would have killed her.” I sniffed. “He’s been bragging about doing that shit since she first left.” Darmody nodded. He looked over at Shrift, then sat down heavily in the plastic chair that was next to my hospital bed. “I think we got enough here,” he said drily. “Look, there’s one more thing. How’d you and Anita wind up together?” “She ran off, and he told me to go get her,” I said flatly. “I didn’t know what he was thinkin’ about doing. He just told me that his girlfriend had left and he wanted her back. She moved out to Durango, Colorado, and tried to start a new life there. I ran into her and we hit it off. That’s how we hooked up. After I fell in love with her, I quit the Titans.” I looked into Darmody’s flat eyes, hoping that my embellishments were enough to make up for the obvious lack of truth there. I knew that there was no way he’d believe me if I told him everything: How I’d tried to drag Anita back to California, how she’d basically seduced me to change my mind, and – worst of all – how long it had taken me to fall in love with her. Darmody nodded. He closed his notebook with a little slap, then tucked it into his pocket. “Alright,” he said. “Shrift, come on. We’re going.” “Wait,” I said. “Are you gonna take Mack away?” Darmody snorted. “Like we’d let that asshole go free,” he said. “We should have enough to charge him with assault. He beat the shit out of you, kid. You’d be dead if you hadn’t made it to the hospital.” When the cops were gone, I flopped back against the mattress in frustration. I knew that a lot of time had gone by, likely hours. It was starting to get dark outside and I hadn’t heard anything about Anita’s condition. I wondered if she was okay – I had no idea how long it took to give birth, but considering the baby wasn’t even fully grown, I couldn’t believe it was that hard. I started gettin’ real restless by the time the moon and stars were out. The nurses changed shifts and now some girl named Rochelle was checking in on me every hour, checking my blood pressure and giving me medicine. I’d resisted at first; I’d always had a weakness for painkillers, and I didn’t wanna be out of it when Anita finally showed up with our kid. But after a while, the pain in my leg got too bad to ignore. “That’s a bad break,” Rochelle said. She handed me a little paper cup with pills, then waited for me to swallow before handing me the water. “You’re lucky that you got here in time.” “Yeah,” I mumbled. “That’s the damndest thing. I don’t even remember that.” Rochelle perked up. She was a youngish nurse, with a pile of frizzy red hair piled on top of her pale

head. “You know, there was another guy involved,” she said. “Maybe he knows something.” I sighed. “Yeah, Mack Dawson,” I said. “And he’s an asshole. An asshole who’s probably busy being arrested in the hallway as we speak. I wouldn’t ask him shit, honey. He’s not really known for being nice to the ladies.” Rochelle’s eyebrows went up and she looked surprised. She darted out into the hallway, as if she couldn’t live another second without witnessing King Asshole himself. When she walked back into the room, she was frowning. “That’s not funny,” she complained. “Trying to trick me like that!” “What?” I rolled my eyes. “He’s the bad guy, kid. He’s the real deal. And hopefully, he’s going upriver for a long time yet.” Rochelle shook her head. “No,” she said. “I mean, that’s not the guy who was in the truck with you and your wife. This guy’s older, like a dad,” she explained. “He’s in the next room. You want me to talk to him?” “Hold up,” I said. “There was someone else? You fuckin’ sure about that?” Rochelle nodded. “Of course,” she said. “I’ll be right back.” She swished out of the room, swinging her little arms. I frowned, shifting on the bed and groaning. The pain medicine was just starting to take hold – I felt myself falling into the familiar opiate haze. It felt good, like being in the arms of an old friend. I closed my eyes and let myself drift away on the ocean of numbing fog. Anita, I thought as I slipped away from consciousness. I’ll be waiting for you. When I woke up, it was fully dark outside. Owls hooted outside of the hospital window. I wasn’t used to seeing clear night skies like that. Even on the old farm where I’d lived outside of Carlsbad had too much light pollution to really see anything properly. And ever since Anita and I had hidden out in St. George, I hadn’t spent much time outside at night. She’d always been paranoid that something real bad was gonna happen the second I stepped away. I didn’t want to tell her that I’d been just as worried. The door to my room swung open, a bright yellow triangle of light appearing on the floor of my room. Rochelle sauntered in, carrying a clipboard. “You’re awake,” she said, sounding surprised. “Everything okay? You need more medicine?” “I really want to see Anita,” I said slowly. The words tasted foreign and blocky in my mouth. Talking had always been hard on painkillers. “Can I see her?”

“She’s given birth,” Rochelle said. “But she’s resting right now. She had to have an emergency operation. Would you like to see the child?” I nodded. “Oh, god,” I said. “Is she okay? Please tell me that she’s okay.” Rochelle nodded. “She should be fine. But the doctor hasn’t made a final call yet; it’s too early to tell.” I must have looked distraught because the nurse put a hand on my shoulder and patted. “You can wait with your daughter if you’d like.” I grinned as Rochelle helped me into a wheelchair and began to roll me out of the room. “So she had a girl, huh? She was so convinced about that, even though the ultrasound tech told her it would be a boy.” Rochelle laughed. “They get it wrong all the time,” she said. She hipped open the door, then guided me out into the hallway. It was so bright that my eyes ached. In the lobby on that floor, I saw Darmody and Shrift. They were reading the Miranda Rights to Mack. His arms were cuffed behind his back and he looked angrier than I’d ever seen him. As Rochelle wheeled me by, I made eye contact with my old boss for what I hoped would be the last time in my life. “Have fun in prison,” I said casually. “Don’t let the big queens get you.” Mack growled and launched towards me, but Darmody held him back by the shoulders. As Rochelle wheeled me by, I stared into Mack’s eyes. You’re a sonuvabitch, I thought. But thanks for Anita. I’ll always give her everything that you couldn’t, you asshole. “So,” Rochelle said confidentially as she wheeled me down another corridor marked ‘nursery.’ “I talked to the other guy – the guy who was in the crash.” “Oh yeah?” By now I’d almost forgotten about what Rochelle had told me earlier. “What happened? Did he remember?” “That’s the thing,” Rochelle said. She pushed me in front of a big glass window. On the other side, hundreds of newborns squawked and cried in what looked like plastic incubators. “He doesn’t, really. Says he picked up your girl, Anita, on the side of the road. And then they got into some wreck.” I blinked. “Holy shit,” I muttered. “That means…” “What?” Rochelle looked at me curiously. “What does that mean?” “That means,” I said slowly, “that Anita was the one who dragged me out of the truck. She must have somehow pulled me into the rig, and driven to the hospital herself.” I blinked again. “What a woman.” Rochelle nodded. “That’s incredible,” she said. “You sure you didn’t walk yourself?”

I shook my head. “No,” I said. “I had a concussion, and slamming into that truck knocked me out. The last thing I remembered before waking up here was driving in front of what looked like a big train. I guess that was the truck.” Rochelle’s eyes flew open wide. “That’s crazy,” she said. She wiped her hands on the front of her scrubs. “I love working in a hospital, you hear such crazy stories,” she gushed. “And you get to meet babies!” My heart swelled as I looked through the window, trying to determine which child was mine. I hated to admit it, but most babies look the same. At least, that’s what I’d always thought. But watching them now, each one of them was different in their own way. I could tell by the way they waved their stubby arms and legs in the air that they each had their own little agenda, their own way of thinking about things. Rochelle leaned close to the glass. “Anita’s baby was slightly premature, so I’m afraid you can’t hold her for too long. She needs to stay warm and comfortable.” “Is she going to be okay?” Rochelle nodded. “Oh, yeah. Ninety percent of infants born after the twenty-seventh week survive with no long-term effects. She should be fine. We just like to be cautious, that’s all.” I nodded. Rochelle bustled inside. I watched eagerly as she traveled down the rows, looking at the babies snug inside their little cribs. When she picked up a pale baby in a pink blanket with a mass of brown hair, my heart swelled inside my chest. It was like nothing I’d ever felt before – a massive burst of paternal pride. I wanted to hold onto that little girl, wrap my arms around her and never let her go. Rochelle carried the baby carefully. When she handed her to me, she moved my hands into position. “You need to hold her head up,” she said softly. “Babies can’t do that on their own for a while. And cradle her securely, like this.” She moved my arm under the baby’s body. A flash of pain shot up my arm but I didn’t move out of fear of hurting my new daughter. “She’s mine,” I said simply. “She’s my daughter.” Rochelle nodded. “Want me to give you some time?” I nodded. “I’ll go and check on Anita. She might be able to see you now, if she’s awake. I’ll check with the doctor.” As Rochelle walked away, I gazed down into the face of the most beautiful baby girl I’d ever seen.

She had light blue eyes and tons of brown hair with a cute little nose. She was like an exact clone of Anita. And while she wasn’t smiling, she had a cute little look on her face like she knew something secretive that I didn’t. “I love you,” I whispered, leaning down to the baby and pressing my lips to her forehead. “You’re my daughter, you know that?” I rocked her gently in my arms. The little baby let out a cry of fear and I shushed her softly, then slowed my rocking motions to the gentlest of gestures. Finally, she quieted back down and I felt another burst of something hot and blissful in my chest. It didn’t matter that this little girl wasn’t my flesh and blood. She was everything I’d ever wanted – everything that I’d never even been able to think about until now. And I knew from the bottom of my heart that no matter what happened, I’d want to protect this little girl for the rest of my life. “You’re never going to have to grow up like I did,” I whispered into her tiny, perfect ears. “I promise, you’ll always have a family and you’ll always have a home.”

Chapter Twenty-Eight Anita When I came to, I felt faint. The pain was back – I hurt everywhere – but the horrible pressure was gone. My stomach was swollen and painful, and I felt like I’d torn apart between my legs. But the overwhelming pressure had finally disappeared. Dr. Marrow smiled at me. “You have a very eager family waiting to see you,” he said. “Would you like to meet your daughter?” My eyes filled with tears as Dr. Marrow helped me into a wheelchair. “I’m taking you into a recovery room,” he said. “Dennis is there, along with your daughter.” “I had a baby girl?” The tears began to spill down my cheeks and I cried openly, burying my face in my hands. “All of the ultrasounds said she would be a boy!” Dr. Marrow laughed. “They’re wrong all the time,” he said. “Trust me. You’re happy?” I was filled with such strong emotion that I could barely nod. “I’ve never been so happy in my whole life.” I wasn’t prepared for the sight of Dennis holding our baby as Dr. Marrow wheeled me into a cheery room with windows and a white hospital bed. My tears turned into choked sobs. “Hey, babe,” Dennis said softly. “You wanna meet our daughter?” The first moments holding my baby were like something from a fairytale. She was small – I’d have thought she was bigger – but her light blue eyes were shaped exactly like my brown ones, and she already had a thick head of brown hair. “Dennis is the father,” I said softly to Dr. Marrow and the nurses crowded inside the small room. “He’s the only father this little girl will ever know.” One nurse – I didn’t recognize her, but she was a pretty, pale redhead – started clapping and visibly teared up. The other nurses clapped, too, and somehow that made me start crying all the harder. The baby looked up at me with wide, innocent eyes. “What should we name her?” Dennis limped over to me. He was using a cane, and I could tell that it hurt him to rest any weight on his leg. “Have you thought of anything?” I swallowed. “What do you think about Bella?”

“Bella it is.” ### The next couple of days were hard. The doctors weren’t letting me go immediately – I’d had a shot of Pitocin after labor, supposedly to help my uterus adapt and begin to stretch back to normal. The doctor had told me that hemorrhaging was extremely uncommon, and unlikely to happen again if I ever had any more children. He said that it was probably brought on by the stress of the situation. Still, I worried that I’d done something to hurt my daughter. I hated knowing that the hours before she’d come into the world had been such traumatizing ones. I wanted to make it up to her as soon as possible. Dennis told me all about Mack, including his real name. I hadn’t even known that – when he told me, I’d burst out laughing. Somehow, imagining my evil ex-boyfriend as ‘Macaulay’ lessened the sting of his years of abuse. He was currently awaiting trial in a county jail, and because of the abuse allegations, he was being held without bail. “The cops told me that he could be locked up for ten or fifteen years,” Dennis told me one afternoon as he was visiting me. We weren’t allowed to stay in the same room – I was still in the ICU – and I looked forward to our visits almost as much as I looked forward to holding my daughter. She was still being kept under close supervision. Hospitals didn’t take premature births lightly, and while I knew that I should have been grateful that Bella was safe, I was still annoyed that I couldn’t hold her. “You really think he’ll get convicted?” I asked softly. Dennis snorted. “If only for breaking my leg in two places,” he said. “And they searched the car that Mack drove in from Cali. Full of drugs and guns with the serial numbers rubbed off.” He rolled his eyes. “He was practically asking for jail time with that kind of a stash.” “Dennis, what are we going to do now?” I asked softly. “What are you going to do for work? Are we going to stay here?” Dennis nodded. “I think that would be for the best,” he said. “Unless you’d rather move. Is there somewhere else you’d rather live?” I licked my lips. “I don’t feel ready to go back to California, yet,” I confessed. “But I’m not sure I want Bella to grow up around here. I want her to have friends her age, you know? This town is so old.” I wrinkled my nose. Dennis laughed. “Yeah, okay,” he said. “We’ll think about that later, okay?” As he leaned in and kissed me on the lips, I felt a warm surge of tingling in my nipples. Dennis’ tongue slipped between my lips and I moaned softly as he reached closer and stroked my back through my thin gown. “I can’t wait to be with you again,” I confessed shyly as Dennis pulled away. “I feel like we don’t get

any privacy around here.” Dennis growled. “You’re gonna be so sore,” he whispered throatily in my ear. “I’ll have to carry you around; you won’t be able to walk.” I giggled and blushed. “That’s no way to speak to the mother of your child,” I said primly. Dennis pulled away. “I was thinking about patching into a local club,” he said. “But if that bothers you, I won’t do it.” He held up his hands in the air and I stared at his wrist. It was still in the soft cast, but he was already looking better than he had before. “If it bothers you, just say the word.” I bit my lip. “I’m not sure,” I said softly. “I don’t know that I’m ready for that kind of life again, Dennis. What kind of stuff would you be involved with?” Dennis ran a hand through his close-cropped blonde hair. I watched as his arm flexed and bulged, the strong muscle showing under his wealth of tattoos. “Nothing illegal,” he said softly. “No drugs, no guns. Probably some security work, if you’re alright with that. And I’d keep doing mechanic handiwork, if I can get it. But I want more security than just odd jobs. We have Bella now. We gotta make sure our daughter is taken care of.” I nodded. “I still have a couple weeks off work,” I said. “But I’ll go back to Target as soon as I can.” Dennis pulled me into his arms and kissed the top of my head. “If I had my way, you’d never have to work again,” he said. He sighed. “We’ll get there soon, though. I promise.” My throat swelled up with emotion and I buried my face in Dennis’ neck so he couldn’t see that I’d begun to cry. I couldn’t believe it – I felt so lucky and happy for the first time in so long. “Did I tell you, before I had Bella, that I had a dream about her?” I looked into Dennis’ eyes. He reached over and wiped one of my tears away. “No, you didn’t.” I bit my lip. “She had your eyes,” I said softly. “They were bright green.” Dennis grinned and puffed up his chest. “Well, makes sense,” he said suavely. “After all, I’m her father.”

Chapter Twenty-Nine Anita – Six Weeks Later “Come here,” Dennis whispered. His cast grazed my thigh as he slowly dragged his fingers over my legs. “I miss you, Anita. It’s been weeks.” “Bella’s asleep, shhh,” I whispered. “We could go in the other room.” Dennis slid an arm under my body and scooped me up, carrying me off toward his bedroom. Well, it wasn’t really his bedroom anymore. It was our spare room. Ever since Dennis and I had come home from the hospital, he and I had slept together every night. Bella had a little crib to the side of my bed. I glanced at her out of the corner of my eye as Dennis carried me swiftly down the hall. Her cute little face was relaxed and slack, and she was sleeping with her lips slightly parted. Sometimes, I joked that we’d won the baby lottery. Bella was so good. She almost never cried or fussed, and spent most of her time feeding and sleeping. My breasts were so used to pumping milk that they were swollen whenever I wasn’t feeding her. As Dennis slid a hand down my body and folded me through the loose sweatshirt I wore, I felt my heart begin to race with excitement. Dennis gently set me down on the bed. As we kissed, I took the time to explore his mouth – letting my tongue run over his, searching all the hidden places. He tasted smoky and musky, like a real man. Like home. “God, Anita, I’ve missed you so much,” Dennis whispered. He slid his hands under my sweatshirt and pulled it up, tossing it to the side. I snuggled against his bare chest, moaning at the sensation of my stiff nipples rubbing against his soft skin. Before I could stop it, milk spurted out from my breasts. I cried out in embarrassment, pulling away from Dennis and burying my face in the sheets. “Anita, don’t,” Dennis said gently. He trailed a hand down my back. “You have no reason to be selfconscious. I promise you, babe. I love you just the way you are. You’re perfect.” I moaned softly. “It just feels so weird,” I mumbled into the covers. “I know that shouldn’t happen when you touch me. It just feels so gross!” “It’s not gross, it’s you,” Dennis said gently. When I felt his lips and tongue on my bare shoulder, I shivered with desire. “And you know I love you, no matter what. So come here and kiss me.” I didn’t have to be asked twice. As Dennis wrapped his arms around me and pulled me closer than ever, our lips met with a burning spark of lust. I groaned softly into his mouth as Dennis began to nibble and suck on my lower lip. Between my legs was a wet mess of arousal. I grabbed Dennis’ wrist and slowly pulled it down my body until his fingers were between my thighs.

“Dr. Marrow just cleared me for sex,” I whispered into Dennis’ ear. “He said that I’m all good to go.” I bit my lip, suddenly nervous. We hadn’t been together since that fateful day where Mack had stormed in and threatened to take all of my happiness away forever. “Dennis, I’m scared.” Dennis pulled away. His deep green eyes stared into mine. I swallowed hard, trying to get over my fright. “Babe, what’s wrong?” Dennis kissed me softly. He pulled the sheet over our bodies and twined his arms around my neck. “Are you afraid of Mack?” “I don’t know,” I said softly. “I’m afraid that things are going to be different now, that we’re not going to be like we were before.” Dennis laughed quietly. “I’m sorry,” he said quickly. “I didn’t mean it like that. But yeah, Anita, things will be a little different around here for now. That’s not all bad, you know. We have a baby now. We’re parents,” he added meaningfully. “Of course we’re not gonna be like we were before.” “And Mack?” “He’s going to jail for a long time,” Dennis said. He grinned smugly. He’d made friends with one of the local cops, and they’d confided to him that Mack didn’t have a chance in hell of getting out any time soon. Between the drug and assault charges, they were looking at fifteen to twenty years. “Good,” I said softly. My heart was pounding in my chest. “I think… I think I want to try again, Dennis,” I said softly. “Come here.” Dennis crawled between my legs, kneeling on the bed and pulling me close. He wrapped his arms around my neck and our lips met. I tasted salt on his lips and gently tongued my way into his mouth, licking his tongue and savoring the taste of him so close to me. Dennis groaned. He bucked his hips against my body and I could feel that he was stiff and hard under the fabric of his jeans. A bolt of lust went through me and I fought the urge to shiver. Calm down, I thought as we moved together on the bed. It’s just Dennis. It’ll be just like before. Dennis crawled down my body, hooking my sweatpants with his thumbs. He tugged them down my hips and tossed them to the side. I looked down, trying to get used to how differently my body looked now that I’d given birth. Losing most of the pregnancy weight had been easy – breastfeeding really helped with that. But my hips were noticeably wider than they had been before, and the stretch marks on my lower belly were still a glaring, angry red. “You’re beautiful,” Dennis said slowly, as if reading my mind. I blushed hotly, arching my back and letting my head recline in the pillows. As his rough fingers trailed their way down my sensitive skin, I let out a low moan of pleasure. His touch felt so good. I couldn’t believe how amazing it felt to be held and stroked and petted by the man I loved. As his fingers slid between my legs, I moaned and spread my thighs. Dennis’ thumb brushed against the crotch of my cotton panties, gently rubbing circles around my clit. I was soaked,

and the feel of the wet panties rubbing against my skin felt like the most delicious kind of torture. As I moaned softly, Dennis growled low in his throat. “I have to have you, Anita,” Dennis purred. He lowered his head to my belly and kissed the angry, red stretch marks covering my skin. His tongue against my sensitive tummy was enough to send me over the edge. Before I knew it, my fingers were tangling in his hair and yanking at his head, while I moaned and writhed on top of the mattress. Dennis was letting his blonde hair grow out just a little bit, and I loved it. He looked so boyish and charming – almost like a new man altogether. Dennis slid the crotch of my soaked panties to the side. He slid a finger inside of me and I gasped – I was much tighter than I had expected. Dennis’ finger slid along the smooth, wet muscle of my pussy and I moaned softly as he rubbed my G-spot with the tip of his digit. “I love seeing you like this,” Dennis growled. The sound of his voice made me blush even harder. “I love driving you wild. I love making you need me the same way I need you.” He slid another finger inside of me and slowly began pumping them in and out of my body while he used his thumb to rub my clit. The sensation was exquisite, and I arched my back as a wild cry of pleasure escaped my mouth. “Take me,” I begged. “Please, Dennis. Please take me. I need you!” Dennis grabbed my panties and tugged them off so fiercely I thought the material would rip. He unfastened his belt and let his jeans fall to the floor. When I saw him naked, I gasped. He was so beautiful – his thick cock was sticking straight up in the air and I shivered when I realized how it would feel when he entered me for the first time in what felt like an eternity. Dennis steadied himself against my hip and pushed the tip of his cock inside of me. Pain mingled with pleasure and I cried out. “Are you okay?” Dennis stroked the side of my face. “Am I hurting you, Anita?” I shook my head. “No,” I said quietly. “I’m fine. Just go slow, okay?” “I don’t know if I can,” Dennis groaned. He slid further inside of me and I bucked my hips up to meet him. “God, you feel so good.” Dennis dug his fingers into the soft flesh of my hips and buried himself inside of me to the hilt. Our bodies began to rock and sway together in the most sensual kind of rhythm. After a few seconds, the pain eased and gave way to the purest pleasure I’d felt in weeks. “This is the best you’ve ever felt,” I whispered to Dennis. “I’m not worried about anything. It feels so good,” I added, moaning softly into his ear and biting the lobe with my teeth. “Just relax,” Dennis whispered. He snuggled close and rocked his hips gently in and out. Soon, we were moving together to the time of our breathing. I closed my eyes and saw golden-red fireworks of pleasure as the gripping, orgasmic sensation started to build in my lower belly. Dennis slid a hand between our bodies, down my slick belly, until he was rubbing my clit with each thrust. It felt heavenly and I cried out loudly as he began to rub me faster and faster. My little bud was swollen and

hard as Dennis rubbed me, and I could feel myself approaching a tidal wave of pleasure. “God, baby,” Dennis groaned. “I would wait for you, but I don’t think I can.” “Harder, please,” I begged, wrapping my arms around his neck and pushing my body against his. I put my legs around Dennis’ waist and squeezed, then began to move my pelvis against his cock until his pubic bone was rubbing my clit with each thrust. When I felt like something was gripping me tightly between the legs, I cried out and buried my face in Dennis’ neck. Holding my breath made my orgasm more intense than ever, and I was crying out and tearing up by the time it had finished rocketing through my body. Dennis groaned. He yanked my legs away from his waist and began driving me hard into the mattress, pushing against my body with each passing second. When he cried out, he buried his hands in my brown hair and yanked my head back as he came. I felt his cock pulse and twitch inside of me, gushing cum. A few seconds later, my ears were filled with Bella’s crying. Dennis began to laugh. “I’m so sorry, babe,” he said, sliding out of me and wrapping a sheet around his waist. “I should’ve been a little quieter.” He snickered. “You want me to get her?” “I’ll do it,” I said. I reached over and squeezed Dennis’ hand. “That was incredible.” I blushed. “I really missed you.” “Definitely the worst thing about being a new parent,” Dennis cracked. He handed me my sweatpants and I yanked them on as I climbed off the bed and went into the next room to soothe my daughter. Fifteen minutes later, Dennis, Bella, and I were all seated on the couch. Bella was nursing – she seemed more content than ever. Her round head swiveled at my breast, as big and pink as a grapefruit. She still had her masses of brown hair, but her blue eyes were starting to change into the same brown as my own. “She’s like your mini-me,” Dennis said softly. He reached out and stroked her head. “She’s so perfect.” I nodded. “She really is,” I said softly. “I’m so happy, Dennis.” Dennis cleared his throat. “There’s something I wanted to talk to you about,” he said slowly. “And I hope you’re not going to get mad.” My gut iced over and I stared at him. “What’s that?” I asked slowly. Horrible thoughts started running through my head. Mack was out of jail and on the loose. Dennis wanted to leave. Dennis had lost his job. Mack and the rest of the Iron Titans were coming to kill Dennis and kidnap me and Bella and— “Anita, relax!” Dennis reached out and stroked my hair. “It’s nothing bad. I just…” He trailed off

lamely. “I had an idea, and I was hoping we could talk about it.” “Oh,” I said softly. “What’s that?” “I want you to think about visiting your parents.” My jaw fell open. “What?” “I want you to think about visiting your parents,” Dennis said again, softer. “I know they miss you, Anita. And they’d love to meet their grandchild. I know they would.” My eyes filled with hot tears and I looked away so Dennis wouldn’t notice. “I can’t,” I said quietly. “I can’t go back there. I can’t look them in the eye again. Not after what I did. Not after how much I hurt them.” Dennis sighed. “Anita, I think you need to do this,” he said. “To get closure.” “I can’t,” I argued. I stood up. “I just can’t bear to do it, Dennis. I can’t look at Mom without thinking about how I lied to her and ditched her for Mack! For a guy who beat me and treated me like an animal! And I didn’t even call home, not once! I didn’t want them to know how badly I was hurting!” “That’s why you have to do this now,” Dennis said quietly. “Anita, if you don’t do it now, you’re going to spend years wondering why. And if they’re anything like you, they’re good people who want to forgive you.” A tear rolled down my cheek. “They are good people,” I said. “And they were wonderful parents. But how do I just show up and say, hey, sorry I fucked up so badly? What if they don’t want to hear it? What if they throw me out?” “They won’t do that,” Dennis promised. “Anita, I promise you – they won’t do anything to hurt you. I’m sure of that.” I glared at him and held Bella close. She bit down on my nipple with her little lips and I cried out in pain. “How do you know that?” “Because,” Dennis said. “I already talked to them about it. And they want us to come for a visit?” I stared at him, too shocked to say anything. Warring emotions filled my chest and I was tempted to cry, laugh, and scream all at once. How dare he do something like that? Go behind my back and try to make contact with the people I’d left! Because he loves me, I realized. Because he knows how empty my life is without my parents, and he wants to help me get that back. “Okay,” I said softly. “We’ll all go see my parents.”

Chapter Thirty Anita Three weeks later, Dennis and I took Bella on her first plane trip. We flew into San Diego from Salt Lake City, and I was more nervous than I’d ever been in my entire life. Dennis did a good job of trying to keep me calm, but after a while he realized how shaky I really was. Then he made sure to watch Bella for the whole flight. He even walked her up and down the aisles when she started crying after we hit a little bit of turbulence. “Don’t let her keep crying,” I snapped. “Here, give her this. Or I can go feed her in the bathroom.” “Anita,” Dennis said quietly. “She’s a baby. Babies cry on planes. It’s like, a universal fact.” He leaned down to kiss my cheek. “I know you’re anxious, but everything is going to be fine.” I didn’t believe him. I hadn’t spoken to my family except for a brief, somewhat strained phone call. After they got over the shock of hearing my voice for the first time in four years, we made details for a visit. I have to admit, I wasn’t expecting Mom to be so warm and friendly over the phone. But by the end of the call, I’d been feeling much better about the whole situation. That had been weeks ago, though. And now I wasn’t sure what to think. What if Mom was saving her anger for when I was there in person? What if she couldn’t wait to get me alone from Dennis, so she could yell at me and tell me what a disappointment I really was. Most of all, there was the whole secret about Bella. Mom and Dad knew that I had a baby – Dennis had told them, back when he’d first reached out. But they didn’t know who her real biological father was, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to tell them. Dennis legally adopted Bella, and we put his name on the birth certificate. Still, I knew there would come a time when I’d have to tell her the truth. Mack’s family had a history of bad genes being passed on, and there was no way I’d take a chance with my daughter’s health because of any humiliation on my part. After our flight, Dennis walked us over to the rental car counters where we picked up a Jeep and set it up with the luggage and car seat for Bella. Traveling with an infant was harder than I’d expected. After all, Bella was still so small that she barely weighed anything. But I hadn’t thought about how bored and squirmy she would be after a few hours on a plane, and by the time I was buckling her into the back seat of the Jeep, my nerves were shot. “I need a drink,” I whined under my breath as I climbed into the passenger seat. “And then a massage. And like, a three-hour nap.” “Well, we’re going to your parents’ house,” Dennis said. He gave me a wry grin. “But anything after that is open for interpretation, okay?”

I sighed. “I know I’m being a brat,” I said softly. “I’m just… God, Dennis, I’m so nervous!” My cheeks turned bright red and I covered my face with my hands. “I can’t help but think of how badly this is gonna go!” Dennis reached over and patted my knee as he pulled out of the airport parking garage. “You don’t know that,” he said slowly. “Everything could be just fine, babe. We’ll have to take everything as it comes.” Dennis didn’t need any help getting back to Carlsbad. It shocked me – for a moment, I’d forgotten that we’d basically been living in the same place. Then again, I’d grown up here. Seeing the familiar streets was like looking through an old photo album. I choked up as Dennis drove past my old high school, the last place I’d really been before Mack had sunk his claws into me and ripped my identity apart. “We’re almost there,” I said. I choked up. “Turn there,” I added. “Take a left. My parents’ house is the last one on the right hand side. It’s wooden – with red shutters.” Dennis drove the Jeep slowly past a group of children playing. I squinted at them, trying to see if I recognized any of them from my time here. But I didn’t – they were all too young. They were probably babies when I left, I thought, glancing back towards Bella in the back of the car. She was strapped happily into her car seat, her eyes closed. If only I could be so lucky, I thought enviously. Dennis pulled into my parents’ driveway and put the Jeep in park. He reached for my hand, squeezing my fingers and lifting them to his mouth. “I love you, Anita,” Dennis said in a low voice. “And I promise – no matter what happens, you’ll always have me and Bella. We’re your family now.” He leaned over and kissed me gently on the lips. “But I know how much you’ve missed your parents, baby. And I hope this visit can help begin to fix things.” I swallowed, resolute, determined not to show any more emotion. “Okay,” I said numbly. “I’ll get Bella.” When we stood in front of the door, I glanced at Dennis. Bella was nestled in my arms, happy in her hospital blanket. “I don’t know if I should knock or just open the door,” I said softly. “It’s been so long since I’ve been home that I don’t know what my mom would want me to do.” “Do whatever you feel comfortable with,” Dennis said softly. He reached over and stroked my hair. “I’m right here, no matter what.” My hand trembled as I reached over and pressed the doorbell. The house had been painted since I’d seen it last – a new, glistening coat of white paint had been laid over the wooden shingles. My throat

swelled up as I saw the decoration my mom had placed on the front porch: a little clay sculpture of a turkey that I’d made in elementary school. Maybe that was a good sign, maybe she’d be willing to— “Anita!” The door swung open. My mom was standing there, looking older and thinner than she had when I’d seen her last. Her brown hair was cut into a neat bob and streaked with white and gray. Her big brown eyes – exact twins of my own – watered and she blinked. “Come here,” Mom whispered. She looked down at Bella in my arms. Without saying anything, Dennis reached over and picked up our daughter, carefully cradling her in his strong, muscled arms. Then, Mom pulled me into a hug. I wrapped my arms around her, not expecting to feel the warm rush of emotion that bubbled up inside of me. The tears that had been building gushed out of my eyes and down my cheeks, and my nose filled with liquid snot. Mom squeezed me tightly – her sharp shoulder jabbed into my throat, making me choke, but I didn’t pull away. Instead, I hugged her all the tighter. When she finally pulled away, her eyes were just as wet as mine. “Anita, don’t you dare stay away for so long again,” she said softly. She smiled and I thought my heart would break with happiness. “And this must be Dennis.” Dennis nodded, unsmiling. “Nice to meet you, Mrs. MacPherson,” he said. “I’m real glad we could come for a visit.” “Is this Bella?” Mom stepped forward, gazing into my daughter’s face. “Anita, she looks just like you did as a baby!” Bella opened her eyes and began to cry. Mom cooed and reached forward, cradling my daughter in her arms. “Bella, it’s okay,” she said. “I’m your Grandma!” Pulling Bella close, Mom looked into my eyes once more. “We’ll have to look through some baby pictures,” she said, her face spreading into a grin. Happy tears trickled down my cheeks as Mom and I smiled at each other. “I bet Anita was a really cute baby,” Dennis said. He smirked and I rolled my eyes. “I’d love to see some pictures.” “Well, come on then,” Mom said. “You’d better get your things and come inside.” She smiled, reaching up to wipe her eyes. “I know Anita’s father is dying to meet his new grandchild.” Dennis waited until Mom had gone into the house before turning to me. “Are you okay?” He reached up with a tissue and wiped my tear-stained cheeks. “Are you upset?” Without saying anything, I pulled Dennis into a close hug. “This is the best present you could have ever given me,” I said softly. “Thank you. Thank you so much.” “Of course,” Dennis whispered back. “Now come on.” He reached down and swatted me on the ass. “Time to go suck up to your dad.”

Seeing my father was even more emotional than seeing Mom again. He pulled me into a bear hug, and told me under no uncertain circumstances that I was never to disappear like that again. I started crying in earnest as he held me close and stroked my back. “Honey, you could have always come back,” Dad said, after I’d explained about Mack. “I wish you would have called.” “I just felt so stupid,” I muttered, rubbing my toes on the plush carpeting of their living room. “I felt like you couldn’t forgive me for being such a dumb little kid.” “That’s bullshit,” Dad said. He grinned as Mom carried Bella into the room. “And your daughter is just beautiful. She looks a lot like you did as a baby!” “That’s what Mom said,” I repeated. Mom and Dad burst out laughing and even Dennis joined in. Soon, Mom made tea and pulled out photo albums and we all sat around talking and laughing. Dennis did pretty well, too. I wouldn’t have expected a biker to fit into my family. While we certainly stood out from my parents with our tattoos and leather jackets, Dennis did all of the important things correctly. He even called my dad ‘sir,’ something that Mack would have died before agreeing to. It felt so good to be back with my parents. Over the years, I’d trained myself not to think about them. When I was still with Mack, it had been pretty easy. After all, I’d been concentrating on how to survive being with an abusive monster as best I could. But as soon as I’d gone out on my own, to Durango, regret had set in. “I’ve missed you so much,” I confessed quietly to Mom and Dad when Dennis stepped outside to take a phone call. “I’m so sorry, Mom. And Dad. I know I should have tried to call, but I didn’t know what to do.” Mom reached over and patted my leg. “I know, honey,” she said. She glanced at Dennis – he was outside, on the back porch, pacing as he held the phone to his ear. “And this seems like a nice man. He’s Bella’s father?” I nodded. “He is,” I said. “And he’s taken good care of me. He’s very protective.” Mom nodded. “And Mack…” She trailed off. “What about him?” A wave of nausea washed over me and I waited for it to pass before opening my mouth. “He’s in prison, Mom. He’s going to jail for a long, long time. He was convicted of assault and selling drugs. Like, bad drugs.” “I never liked him,” Mom said. The air between us grew tense, and my father cleared his throat and excused himself. Mom glanced down at her hands in her lap – they were smaller than I’d remembered, and more wrinkled. She’d added another couple of small diamond bands to her left ring

finger. I winced when I remembered that my dad gave her a piece of jewelry for every anniversary. “I know,” I said. “Mom, I’m so sorry. I should have listened to you. I should have gone to college, or anything. And I know you’re not proud to have a daughter in her twenties working retail, with a baby, who’s not even married. But I want you to know how much I—” “Hush,” Mom said. She took my hand in her own and squeezed. “Honey, with this economy, even the people who did go to college are still working retail. That doesn’t matter anymore. All that matters is that you’re safe and happy.” She looked out at Dennis again, who was still pacing outside. “And honey, are you really happy living in Utah? In such a small town?” I nodded. “For now,” I admitted. “But….at some point, Dennis and I want to move back here. He still has some friends around here, and I want to be closer to you.” “And I want to watch this adorable baby grow up,” Mom said. She scooped Bella into her arms and kissed her on the head without even waking her up. “She’s just the cutest, Anita. How was your delivery?” ### That night, alone in the guest room, Dennis held me in bed for a long time while I cried. I couldn’t explain it – I should have been over tears by this point. But there was something about coming home, about having my parents accept me again, that felt so good I couldn’t even put it into words. Dennis stroked my hair and kissed my forehead every few seconds. “Are you happy, babe?” “Yeah,” I whispered quietly into his neck. “Thank you for this, Dennis. Thank you for giving me my family back.” “Hey, what did I say?” Dennis shifted in the bed and began to rub my back with the heels of his hands. “I told you – Bella and me, we’re your family now. But I’m glad you get your parents back, too, babe. I’m really happy for you.” My heart broke right then and there. I kissed him softly, staring into his bright green eyes. “I’m sorry you didn’t ever have this growing up,” I told Dennis. “But I promise, I’ll love you forever if you’ll let me. And you’ll always have Bella and me. I want to give you everything that you’ve given me.” Dennis grinned. He pulled me close and kissed me again until I felt my toes tingling with desire. “Trust me, babe,” he said quietly, nipping at my lower lip. “You already have.”

Chapter Thirty-One Dennis The next morning, I had some shit to get done. After having breakfast with Anita and her folks, I drove out to the Iron Titans hideout. They were all sitting at the bar, having a beer, and by the looks on their faces they were none too surprised to see me. I walked over to Pete, one of the guys who’d joined the MC around the same time as me. “Hey,” I said. “Thanks for seeing me like this.” Pete looked at me warily. “No problem,” he said. He pulled me into a half-hug and slapped me on the back. “Are we gonna be seein’ you around here?” I shrugged. “Depending on what Anita wants to do,” I said. “But I can’t get involved with anything illegal again. Can’t risk leaving her with that kid all alone. She needs someone to take care of her.” I sighed. “And I’m gonna ask her to marry me sometime when we’re here. So I can really take care of her, y’know?” “Fuckin’ congrats! Get this man a beer!” The other guys cheered and clapped. One of them tossed me a cold can of Bud and I popped the top, chugging the cold, yeasty brew until my stomach was full. “I need you to promise me that Mack ain’t ever gonna hunt her down again,” I said. “Even if he gets out of the big house. He can’t come near Anita. She’ll get a restraining order, but that goes for her kid, too. I legally adopted her.” “I swear,” Pete said. He gave me his hand and we shook. “I’m the new Pres now, anyway, so I make the fuckin’ rules. Mack isn’t welcome around here, even if he does get out.” “Oh yeah?” I smirked. “What else did he do?” “He fuckin’ left Rocky stranded in prison in Utah,” Pete said. He made a fist and punched his other hand. “And he was fuckin’ stealing money from the club. About three million of it. All siphoned right into his personal bank accounts.” “No shit,” I breathed. Mack had been like a god of the Iron Titans, and no one had ever been willing to disobey him before. Hearing that the guys had finally turned their backs on him for good was the best news I’d ever gotten. By the time I left the clubhouse, I was feeling nervous again. Anita’s parents cooked dinner, and we all sat out on the front porch together afterwards, drinking iced tea and looking up at the sky. I’d really missed California – maybe it was in my blood now – and being back felt like the perfect vacation, the perfect time to tell Anita how I really felt.

When the sun started sinking low in the sky, I got up and walked over to Anita. She gasped as I dropped down on one knee and pulled a small velvet box out of my pocket. “Anita, I know we didn’t meet under the most ideal circumstances,” I said slowly. “But since we met, I’ve never been able to get out outta my mind. You’re the perfect woman, and the only woman I could ever imagine spending the rest of my life with. I love you, and I want to take care of you and Bella until the day I die. Will you marry me?” Anita teared up. She blinked, her big brown eyes shining in the twilight. Her blonde-streaked brown hair was pushed over one shoulder, and her lips were pouty and trembling. “Yes,” Anita whispered. “I love you, Dennis. And yes, I want to marry you.” With shaking hands, I lifted the ring out of the small box and slid it onto her finger. “You’ve made me the happiest man on earth,” I said. “And I’m so glad.” “About time!” Anita’s dad thundered. He walked over to me and clapped his hand on my back. “Son, I had no idea you were gonna take so long!” He threw his head back and laughed loudly. “Congratulations, both of you!” Anita glanced from me to her father. “Dennis, what’s he talking about?” I licked my dry lips. “When I first called your parents, to see if they would want us to visit, I asked permission for your hand,” I said. “I know it’s old-fashioned. But I know how much the approval of your folks means to you, and I wanted to make sure I was doing right by them.” I smirked. “I’ve been doing things wrong for so long that it’s taken me forever to learn how to do them right. And dammit Anita, I need to do right by you. I need to do right by Bella, too. And all the other kids we may have.” I raised my eyebrows and smiled as Anita’s face blushed bright red. Anita glanced down at the ring on her finger. “It’s too perfect,” she said softly. “I don’t believe this.” I grinned. “Yeah, well, living in a cottage in Utah sure has its perks,” I said. “That’s why I wanted to stay out there for a while, babe. I wanted to make sure I could buy you a ring. But now that you’ve got it…” I trailed off, teasing her. “Feel like moving back to Carlsbad?” The pressure of Anita’s little arms around my neck were all the answer I needed. We kissed as her parents picked up Bella and carried her into the house, giving us some privacy. “You happy?” I raised my eyebrow at her. “You happy, marrying me and settling down with Bella?” Anita’s eyes were shining with happy tears as our lips met. “Yes,” she whispered softly. “I love you, Dennis. This is the happy ending I always wanted.” I couldn’t stop the lump from forming in my throat as I kissed her back. “Good,” I said quietly. “This is everything I always wanted, too.”


Free Bonus Book: GRIFFIN

He didn't need a chokehold to take my breath away. Sadie I’ve got my career and reputation to worry about. The last thing I need is some bad boy adrenaline junkie who can’t keep his hands to himself. So why does the sight of this guy make me want to drop to my knees? This guy could practically snap me with those massive arms and his double-wide hands. It’s primal. It’s disgusting. So why do I want it? He makes headlines with his strong fists and fast women. He discards everyone and everything. I’m a smart girl—too smart to set myself up. So why am I dying for him to knock me down?


She’s just another clean-cut girl hoping to piss off daddy by bringing a bruiser like me around. Still, I’d like to see that uptight little suit on my bedroom floor. She thinks she’s smarter than me. I wanna take her down a notch. In fact, I wanna take her all the way down. A girl like that is just aching to be broken by a man like me. She seems so pure, so untouched—more likely to curl up with a book than a man. But we’ll see how much she feels like reading after I’m behind her with a fistful of that gorgeous hair. Go ahead, sweetheart. Roll those beautiful eyes and use that condescending tone on me. Soon enough you’ll be tapping out.


It felt like the day was never going to end. Of course, I’d been struggling from the moment I woke up, so of course an eight-hour shift seemed like an eternity. I had spent the previous night working until about three in the morning, hoping that my latest article would, for once, earn me the recognition I was trying so hard to achieve. But so far, I’d heard nothing back since I submitted the piece upon arriving at the office. Thankfully enough, I was patient. I’ve always been patient. My parents listed it as one of my most amazing qualities the last time I called them to mention that I still hadn’t gotten a promotion. For as long as I could remember, I’d just wanted to write. All through my years of schooling, I was a member of newspapers and yearbook panels, and most of my free time was spent penning pages in either my diary or for the various junior journalism contests that I entered through the years. My parents were elated every time I won, and I continued to be surprised. At the time, writing was more of a hobby than something I imagined I could make a career out of. But when I graduated from high school, my path never seemed clearer. After obtaining my degree in journalism and public relations from Duke, I was lucky enough to land a job at a popular entertainment magazine less than six months later. I’d been at The Grind for almost two years, and though I had all the vim and vigor of a concerted reporter, I had gone exactly nowhere. And still, I was patient. But, that was me – Sadie Warner, all-around good girl, and hard-worker. I tended to do what I was told. I never had the rebellious phase that so many teens went through with their parents and all my friends constantly branded me the goody-two-shoes of our group. But I never complained. Why would I, when being the good girl had worked for me up until now? “Sadie?” I jumped as Alex, my boss, called me from across the office. Popping my head up above my cubicle, I met the middle-aged man’s intense gray gaze. “Yeah?” “Get in here.” He gestured toward the conference room, giving the order in his distinctive gruff tone. “We need you for this meeting.” Meeting? No one told me about any meeting today. Nonetheless, I bolted up, grabbing a pad to take

notes as I hurried down the hallway that led to the conference room on the west end of the floor. I seemed to arrive right as the meeting started, and took a seat next to Nick, one of the magazine’s lead reporters. He certainly didn’t have any difficulty getting the stories he wanted, and he’d only been with the company for a year longer than I had. He was also one of the office’s most notorious flirts. When I sank into the chair to his right, he immediately winked at me, and I resisted the urge to roll my eyes. Sure, Nick was cute enough, but I had no desire to be next in his long line of conquests. “Alright, people.” Alex got everyone’s attention brusquely. “We’ve just had one of the year’s hottest exclusives dumped in our laps. For a split second, his lips curved upwards in a ghost of a smile, and I knew he must be in a good mood. Alex never smiled. “We’ve got the first major interview with up and coming MMA fighter Griffin Webb. It’s going to be a cover story, so I need someone who’s going to get this right.” Immediately, half of the hands in the room shot up – most of them female. But, I knew better. How long had I been asking Alex for cover stories? Since about two weeks after I’d started working at The Grind. While, at first, his excuse had been that I needed more experience, now I knew he was deliberately blowing me off. Sadie, the ever-patient. Chewing on my lower lip, I tapped my pen against the pad in front of me while I waited for Alex to pick the lucky duck who would get the assignment. I was willing to bet that it would be Nick, and I wasn’t disappointed. Within thirty seconds, Alex’s finger shot out to point at the swarthy brunette. “Sadie. It’s your lucky day.” What? For a minute, I was confused. He was pointing at Nick, but talking to me. And then I realized…he was pointing at me. My eyebrows must have touched my hairline. “Me?” I stared at Alex incredulously. “You’re giving me a cover story?” “Don’t look so surprised.” For all the world, Alex sounded as if he’d been planning to give me the gig all along. And, within a few seconds, I found out why. “You’re cute, Sadie. And you’re nice. Webb will eat it up.” Was that supposed to be an insult or a compliment? I wasn’t quite sure. I held my tongue, as usual, afraid that if I asked I’d be denied the cover that had so suddenly dropped into my lap. The meeting moved on swiftly, and other assignments were given out. Thirty minutes later, I was still shocked that the cover piece hadn’t been taken from me, and walked back to my desk in a daze. It wasn’t until I sat down that I realized; I had no idea who on earth Griffin Webb was. He had to be

pretty hot stuff to garner a cover, but there was no way I could meet the man without knowing what I was getting into. So, I did what any rational reporter would: I Googled him. The moment the first images of him popped up on my screen, I could do nothing but stare. If ever there was a man that was the textbook definition of masculinity, Griffin Webb was he. Apparently, he was the hottest up-and-comer in the MMA world, nearly undefeated, and a notorious playboy to boot. There were several news stories detailing the numerous brawls the man got into – seemingly at every opportunity. Since rising to fame, his schedule seemed to have taken on a rather predictable vein: sleep with some hot girl, get caught arguing in public with her, nasty breakup, bar trip with lots of drinking, and finally, an unnecessary brawl. Of course, there were also the fights that came after the few matches he had lost, when one of his entourage was disrespected at a luxury store when a male commentator had questioned his masculinity… The list went on and on. Of course, men that looked like that could be little else but bruisers, could they? I glanced around the office to make sure no one was spying on me before I allowed myself to ogle the plethora of images on the page. Dark-haired, tan-skinned, and tall, Griffin had to be one of the most physically attractive men I’d ever laid eyes on. Of course, it helped that he was shirtless in most of his pictures, exposing a wide, lean muscled chest that, more often than not, was dripping with sweat. His raven hair was long, worn in a knot at the base of his neck to expose bulky shoulders and the sharp structure of his face. High cheekbones, strong jaw, a nose that looked like it had been broken its fair share of times, and a mouth that looked a little too sensuous on a bruiser all combined to make a very lovely package. There was, however, one teensy little detail that bothered me; Griffin never smiled. There were thousands of pictures of him, and he didn’t look happy in any of them. In fact, he constantly stared into the camera with a challenging glare that made me a bit uncomfortable. Sure, he was supposed to be a fighter – but did that mean he was angry all the time? Or was that simply part of the bad boy persona that hung around him? It was funny – for most of my adult life, I had wondered what being with such an attractive man would be like. My problem was that I wasn’t stupid. Attractive men usually knew they were attractive, and I hardly had time for games. I was too busy working on my career and myself as a person. Being the nice girl. All the guys I dated were pseudo-intellectuals. People I met either in the city or on my college campus who were never really lookers. What mattered more to me was that they could beat me in an

argument, and offer one hell of a conversation. I discovered during my years at Duke that sex was nothing to really get excited about – so why rely on sex appeal to make a relationship? Good conversation was so much more fulfilling. That being said, when a girl looked at a man like Griffin, the cogs in her mind started to turn. What would it be like, I wondered, to have a man that could toss you around in bed? Who could pin you down and make you feel things you’d never known existed? As I looked into those burning green eyes, I imagined what it might be like to have them looking down at me. Not smiling, but roving over the length of my bare body, igniting heat wherever they roamed. Would that layer of stubble on his chin leave me red in places few had explored but me? And what would he have me do? Bad boys like Griffin were always supposed to be dominant, right? Would he press me to the bed by the nape of my neck, and fuck me until I screamed his name? Or would he be a surprisingly gentle, attentive lover? Somehow, I doubted it. But deep down, the idea wasn’t as distasteful as I might profess. Griffin Webb looked like a man that could do some damage – and the prospect of his hands all over me made heat pool between my legs as my mouth dried. Considering I was about to work with the man, I was far too aroused to ask him anything but how quickly he could get inside me. “Doing a little research, Sadie?” I swallowed a cry of surprise, quickly minimizing my open window before whirling in my chair. Of course, Nick stood in the entryway of my cubicle with a snarky little smile that made my eyes narrow. “What is it?” I demanded, perhaps a little too sharply. “Nothing.” Nick held up his hands, the picture of innocence. As if I didn’t know better. “I just wanted to congratulate you on your first cover. Been a long time in the making, hasn’t it?” Was he trying to flirt with me, or just straight up attempting to prove his own superiority? Arching a brow, I continued to stare at him as I crossed my arms over my chest. “A little while, yeah. Thanks.” I nodded in acknowledgment, expecting him to take his leave. Of course, he did no such thing. Instead, Nick ran a hand through dark-brown hair, clearing his throat. “Maybe you might let me take you to dinner to celebrate? I know this nice little place on thirty-fourth – they do live jazz.” Ah. So that was what this was about. Mr. High and Mighty was trying to use my success as an excuse to get laid. I might have laughed out loud- if I was that kind of girl. Instead, I merely shot the man a thin smile.

“Sorry, Nick. No can do. I want to get over to the gym as soon as possible to speak with Webb.” Alex had graciously provided me with the address of the gym where Griffin trained, along with his trainer’s credentials. I already had everything I needed to get a head start on this story. “Ah, well. Maybe later then.” Or never. I didn’t feel too guilty as I watched Nick stride away. He’d probably have moved on to some helpless secretary before the day was out – which was absolutely fine by me. I had a schedule to keep. Gathering my things, I prepared to head downtown to the gym. It was about fifteen minutes away by car – provided that traffic was kind. Which meant I had exactly fifteen minutes to get my shit together and present Griffin with the most professional face I could muster. Regardless of his less than ideal record, I would be nice to him, I knew, because that was my MO. And why not? This cover story could do all kinds of things for my career. For that opportunity, I could swallow my hormones and buck up. Griffin might be a bad boy, but he had no idea how ferocious an ambitious, good girl could be.


Where the hell did they all come from this early in the morning? I’d had a pretty late fucking night, and my knuckles were still aching from the force I used to knock some uppity bastard out cold. Of course, his girlfriend had been all offended, but she obviously hadn’t heard what the guy said to me. So my night ended with me getting tossed out of the bar. My date, of course, stayed. She was probably anxious to see who she could schmooze into buying her more drinks. Fine by me. I wasn’t exactly head over heels anyway. What did bust my balls, however, was being confronted by the paparazzi first thing in the morning I left my midtown apartment to head to the gym – and let off some steam. And there they were. In some fucking frenzy about what had happened the previous night. Of course, it would be all over the goddamn papers. They ate up whatever trouble I got into like it was their bread and butter. Which, I had to remind myself, it probably was. Reporters thrived on drama, and I created it. Though, of course, not by choice. I’d always had a temper. Now that I’d reached the big leagues, that temper was on display for everyone to see. To be honest, people have been telling me to tone it down for my entire life. Take a breather, calm down, don’t let your anger control you…shit like that. But those people didn’t know what a shit-show my life was until I escaped Druggie Mom, Dad that liked to hit anyone and anything – it hadn’t been the best atmosphere for a kid to grow up in. Ma liked to put her next fix ahead of her kid’s next meal, so I went hungry more times than I could count. The only way I got food in my belly was to steal it- and of course, dad gave me hell for that. Said he wouldn’t have any son of his in trouble with the law – before beating the everloving shit out of me. Ma didn’t get treated much better. Every time someone tries to guilt trip me by telling me I’m like my father, I know they’re spouting horseshit. I hit people that deserve it, and I have never, in my life, laid a hand on a woman. That is pure cowardice. I’m nothing like my dad.

Though I will admit as I shoved through the masses of reporters waiting eagerly outside my building, I was sorely tempted to drop kick a few of them. I ignored all the questions fired in my direction in favor of getting to my car. Once inside, I blasted the music, scaring a few reporters out of the way as I revved the engine. And then I was home free. As I headed downtown, my fingers itched on the steering wheel. I needed to hit something. After being rudely awoken by building security telling me that the paparazzi were chomping at the bit outside, the frustration was fairly rolling off me in waves. On top of that, the blonde from the previous night was feeling apologetic. She texted me to see if we could meet up that night. She was very eager to make things up to me. But I wasn’t buying it. Perhaps I’d be more open to the idea after I finished my workout, but I’d long found that the need to fight and the need to fuck were separate concepts in my book. One couldn’t be replaced with the other. And right now, fighting was first on my list. I arrived at the gym among another throng of eager reporters. I swear they were like cockroaches – coming out of the woodwork and impossible to get rid of. My mouth pressed into a tight line as I barreled my way through to the front entrance of the gym. Once inside, all the chatter was blessedly replaced by the sound of fists against leather and grunts of exertion. I was home. It took me all of ten minutes to get into the locker room and change, wrapping my hands, and shoving my hair out of the way. By the time I emerged, Riley was waiting for me. I’d told him nine o’clock sharp, and I was right on time. When I met the older man’s gaze, I smiled for the first time that morning. Riley O’Connell had been my salvation when I’d been sure that my old man would beat me to death before my fifteenth birthday. He’d seen me on the street in the gutter one day, searching for change, and offered to buy me a meal. At the time, I was suspicious as hell. The only men that wanted to buy me anything were those attracted to my long hair and lean body – and that definitely wasn’t for me. But Riley wasn’t that kind of man. He ran a gym downtown, he told me, and if I were willing, he’d pay me to clean up after hours. What the hell he’d seen in a skinny, angry kid from the east side, I’ll never know. But he saved my life.

When I started working at the gym, I quickly became obsessed with watching the fighters. Riley was a retired former champ himself, and he specialized in turning timid young boys into self-assured young men. I was a harder case than most. I was stubborn and barely showed up to work on time. When I did make it, I was usually covered in bruises. But Riley never gave up on me. Instead of kicking me out, he taught me to defend myself – and I matured from a skinny, punk teenager to a man with a mission. There came a time when, instead of knowing when to stop, my dad beat my mom almost to death. Before that could happen, a certain angry eighteen-year-old intervened. And turned the tables. It was a personal triumph for me, even if Ma called the police and I ended up in jail overnight. Around that time, I discovered that she wasn’t ever going to let go of Dad – or what he did to her. And I left without looking back. Luckily enough, Riley was willing to take me in. I had a little income working at the gym, and in the meantime, he helped me hone my skills. By the time I was twenty, I was doing my own training – and at his suggestion, I started entering amateur underground fights on the east side – in the very same neighborhood that had molded me. The rest was history. Now, it was good to be able to give back to Riley. My notoriety was his, and professionals from all over the world came to train at the gym. It was my little slice of Zen- and there I was king. “Can’t ever catch a break, can you?” Riley slapped me on the back with a wide grin. “Making headlines again, are we?” “Seems to be a bad habit of mine.” I grunted, cracking my knuckles as I looked over the fighters getting in their early morning practice. Everyone from beginners to advanced competitors was welcome here, as long as they pulled their own weight. Which was lucky for me. I needed a hard spar to get my mind off the ravenous reporters outside. “New flavor of the week get hit on by another guy, Griff? I thought you were above all that.” The mere thought was enough to make me chuckle. I had never, in my life, fought on behalf of a woman. Why would I? They liked to rouse men to conflict just to see them fight and wallow in their own importance. No. No girl was worth fighting for. I needed to save most of my aggression for the ring anyway. “You know me better than that, old man,” I growled with a smirk, before stepping towards a punching bag in the far corner. It was always left vacant for me because most of the guys knew I came in with a lot

of steam to blow off. And this morning was worse than usual. “So we’re still preparing for the fight in New York, you know. A week away, and you gotta be hard, kid. This is one more step towards the heavyweight championship.” I was only three fights away. I didn’t need Riley to tell me to work my ass off. I already knew what was at stake. And I’d be damned if I was ever going back to where I came from. Positioning my fists before me, I took a wide stance before the bag, the muscles in my arms and shoulders flexing in anticipation. Though I’d just been throwing punches the previous night, this was different. This time, I was in my element. “Get it in now.” Riley himself had faded into the background, and me and the bag were all there was. Even so, I tried to concentrate on what he was saying. “Lyle’s got you doing some cover article for a magazine around eleven. So be ready.” I could have groaned. Another interview? I suppose it was just another byproduct of being on the upward swing. But after almost ten years, it was getting to the point where I did as much publicity shit as I did actual fighting. It was a severe test of my patience. Which was why I was lucky to have Riley and the gym – so I didn’t knock some poor unsuspecting reporter out like a light. The first contact of my fist against the bag was absolute nirvana. Immediately the tension from that morning and the previous night begin to fade away as I found a familiar rhythm. A small voice at the back of my head tells me that I should probably take it easy. This might very well be the sixth bag I’ve destroyed this month – but when I was in the zone, there was little I could do to stop myself. It just felt so damn good to hit something.


Of course, traffic was hellacious when I least expected it. Instead, of fifteen minutes to get to the gym, it took thirty. Though I supposed, I ought to have been grateful for the extra time that gave me to gird my loins. What was it about Griffin Webb? Usually attractive, masculine, bruiser types like him weren’t what I went for. I was fully aware of how dangerous such men could be. I could look; I knew, but then I needed to move on. So why did this MMA fighter rile me so much? I hadn’t even met the guy yet, and already, I was hot and bothered. Which was the last thing I needed. “Get yourself together, Sadie.” I goaded myself. “This is a cover story. Stow your libido and act like a professional.” Great, now not only was I stuck in traffic, I was talking to myself. Excellent preparation skills. Just when I thought I might die in my car just shy of my exit, traffic cleared, and I made a beeline for 34th street. The gym was a small, nondescript building sandwiched between a deli and a laundromat. Not exactly the kind of place I would imagine a world-renowned MMA fighter to shack up. But, I knew I had come to the right place the instant I spotted, at least, ten reporters milling around the main entrance. My eyes widened slightly. I knew this guy was famous – we wouldn’t be doing a story on him if he weren’t, but when it came to the world of MMA I was woefully under-informed. In my mind, it was just a bunch of angry men beating each other to a pulp for sport – much like wrestling. I was apparently very wrong. Wrestling stars didn’t draw this much of a crowd. If these guys were here for Griffin, he was more prolific than I could imagine. The notion made my heart skip a beat as I remembered what was at stake here. If I did this right, as Alex insisted I might, then this could be the ultimate boost for my career. I might even, someday, make it to Nick’s level. Always doing cover stories – the magazine’s go-to woman. I could only imagine how proud of me my parents would be if such a thing happened. How proud I’d be of myself. But if I wanted to get the ball rolling, I was going to have to get past that crowd and into the building

– which might be easier said than done. I rolled around the block twice, looking for a parking spot, until I managed to just slip into a place where a delivery truck was pulling out. Then, I all but ran back to the gym. Sure, I was a nice girl, but when it came to getting something I wanted, I was more than prepared to play dirty. My jaw set, I shoved my way past several irate reporters blocking the storefront, my mind on my goal. While they were affronted as all get-out, they let me pass. Within minutes, I was finally standing at the front entrance of the gym – and right in front of one of the hugest men I’d ever seen in my life. He had to be close to seven feet tall – and a mass of solid muscle. Burly arms, thick legs, and a mean look that suited him just swell. He, unlike the reporters, wasn’t going to yield to a simple push. No, I was going to have to state my business. I cleared my throat, before attempting to speak over everyone else present. “Excuse me?” The massive man before me glared down in a way that probably made small children wet themselves. Lucky for me, I was long out of diapers. I glared right back. “I’m sorry, I have an appointment? I’m from The Grind. We were told we’d have an opportunity to interview Griffin Webb today.” If anything, the Terminator’s scowl only deepened. “Only members allowed,” he grunted sharply, and my heart sank. What the hell was I supposed to tell Alex if I couldn’t even get past the front door of the gym? If I went back to the office empty-handed, I’d be a laughing stock. Which wasn’t going to happen. “Can you please check with the owner?” I tried pleading in a saccharine sweet voice. “I’m expected, you’ll see.” He stared, and I had to straighten my spine to keep from cringing at the intensity of his expression. He looked like he could break me in half with a flick of his wrist. I could only hope his inclinations were more gentlemanly than that. “No visitors.” This time, when he growled, I felt it in my gut. If I were the cursing type, that would have been my cue. However, I was more the proactive type than one to spew profanity when things didn’t go my way. It was what had gotten me to where I was. And I wasn’t going to stop now. The cogs in my head turned as I frantically tried to think of a way past this brute. It made sense that they would station someone here to keep every reporter in town from swarming over Griffin – but it also meant that even people on his schedule had to fight their way in. If it came down to physical conflict, there was no way I was going to win.

Pulling my phone out, I retreated slightly, on the cusp of calling the gym’s owner to see what I could do to straighten the mess. As it turned out, that wouldn’t be necessary. At that exact moment, the door opened behind the pseudo-bouncer, and a tall, dark-haired man appeared. He might have been in his late forties or early fifties, with gray just coming in at the edge of his temple. His features were rough, nose crooked, lips thin turned down into a frown of disapproval. It was his eyes, however, that pierced right through you. They were a steely gray-blue color, and at the sight of them, most of the reporters fell silent. The man elbowed his massive guard dog and, without a word, he moved out of the way. Then, he scanned the crowd as if he were looking for something. The moment his eyes fell on me, they widened. He gave me a very pointed, very male once over that might have had me bristling if I didn’t think I could use it to my advantage. “You Sadie Warner?” His voice was a northeastern accented tenor – and at the mention of my name, I could have shouted in relief. “Yes.” I managed, casting a short glare at the man who had refused to admit me. “I’m Sadie. I have an appointment.” “Damn right, you do.” His eyes lingered on my chest for about half a beat too long, and I sighed. The problems of being a woman in reporting – people tended to see your choosier bits before they saw you. “Right this way, Ms. Warner.” He stuck out a weathered hand for me to shake and I gratefully obliged. “Name’s Riley O’Connell. I own the place – and I’m Griffin’s trainer.” I’d hit the jackpot. Resisting the urge to smile smugly back at the reporters who were muttering about me under their breath, I instead beamed up at the Terminator before ducking under his arm as I moved off after Riley. The moment we were in the building, the din from the city outside faded away, and we were plunged into the dim light of a narrow stairwell. My immediate thought was that this place didn’t look like where someone at the top of his game would train. The hallway was lit by only a single shaft of sunlight that revealed the whirling dust, and the staircase before us appeared to have seen better days. The walls were plastered with what were clearly years of posters and fight bulletins. So many that there wasn’t a blank space to be seen – only a ton of shredded, aged paper that appeared to be peeling in most places. Curious, I followed Riley up the stairs, wincing when they creaked loudly with every step we took. When we finally made it to the second floor, I was more than a little surprised by the sight that met my eyes. The place was…kind of a dump.

The main level wasn’t much different from the stairwell. Cleaner, maybe, but the floors told their age in the scratches carved into deep from the tread of patrons and equipment. The mats were weathered and faded from a deep blue to more of a pale gray. Along one side of the large room, a series of punching bags hung from the ceiling, and perhaps half of them were occupied by shirtless men attempting to pound the stuffing from the heavy objects. There were what seemed to be teenagers all the way up to those that looked to be the same age as Riley – and each one of them had a look of intense concentration on his face. Towards the back of the gym, there was a row of dirty windows through which sunlight shone through. There, more members jumped rope and warmed up in pairs, their grunts barely audible over the impacts on punching bags. There were two practice rings dominating the other side of the space. They looked almost like the same ones boxers competed in, only the people going at one another’s throats within the ropes certainly weren’t boxing. They were beating the stuffing out of one another – in whatever way they could. In a slight state of awe, I watched as one man took another down by wrapping his legs around his neck and slamming him into the floor so hard the entire gym thrummed with the impact. Amazingly, after tapping his partner’s leg rapidly to get him to release him, the recipient of the punishment laughed good-naturedly before rising to his feet. His lip had been split open, but he hardly seemed to care. He took on a fighting stance, his fists raised in front of him, and prepared to go again. I was shaking my head in disbelief. How the hell could he take a hit like that and just get up smiling? A sharp yell of pain yanked my attention to the other ring – and my heart stopped. It took less than half a second for me to recognize the man I’d come to interview. He was one of the two that faced off against one another in the second ring – and though I knew nothing about fighting, I knew enough to know that he was kicking his opponent’s ass. Griffin’s long, lean form dripped with sweat from his exertions, his body held in a position that was defensive and offensive all at once. His dark hair was pulled into its customary knot, his face a mask of concentration. And what a face. His pictures hadn’t quite done it justice. His visage was all angles, his nose sharp and mouth achingly full. I watched those lips press into a tight line as the muscles in his chest and shoulders coiled – A fraction of a second before he lashed out. The other guy barely saw it coming. He ducked, and Griffin’s punch glanced off of his shoulder with enough power to send him stumbling. As he backed up, raising his hands in front of him to block,

Griffin moved with a series of kicks – one to his midsection, and then another to his chest and face. His opponent took a foot across the jaw and went sailing into the ropes were he sagged for at least fifteen seconds, and my heart leaped into my throat. I could see instantly, why Griffin was a fighter to be feared. He was fluid, precise, and brutal. I had never liked to watch any form of publicized fighting. To me, wrestling, boxing, and the like were all idiotic ways for men to indulge their baser instincts. I would be willing to bet that not one of them could quote a play or write a memoir. They couldn’t hold a conversation or hear something they didn’t want without flipping whatever was close to them. They had always earned my distaste. But as I watched Griffin, I felt just about everything except disgust. White-hot desire flared through me with enough intensity to leave me breathless, and my knees went weak. Struggling for breath, I watched him advance on his opponent, his bare chest glistening in the low light. I didn’t think I’d ever been more jealous of anything as I watched tiny droplets of sweat traverse the length of his torso to soak into the waistband of the black shorts he wore. The man he was fighting just managed to get off the ropes before Griffin lunged at him, launching into a series of strikes that made my head spin. And my thighs clench. This shouldn’t have been arousing me. I wasn’t the kind of women who was turned on by the basic carnality of physical conflict. But, each time I watched Griffin’s muscles contract as he moved in swift, concise motions, I felt hunger churning deep in my gut. There was no doubt about it. This man would not be soft and gentle in bed. He was the type to grab a woman, rip her underwear off, and take her against a wall – damn the consequences. The very prospect made me light headed as I imagined him coming up behind me and pressing me into the nearest available surface. Whispering into my ear the delicious things he planned to do to me as he inched my skirt up over my hips… His hot, turgid seduction would be nothing like the tentative, half-hearted attempts I’d faced before. Once Griffin Webb was done with me, all I would want was to have him again. And right there, in the middle of Riley’s gym, I felt the thin fabric of my panties clinging to the wetness between my legs. I was more aroused than I’d ever been in my life. And I had to get to work.


I always had to admit, a sparring match was far more fulfilling than driving my fist into some random stranger at a bar. Not that the guy from the previous night hadn’t had it coming, but I knew that the average man didn’t drop people left and right. No, in the ring, I was much more controlled. It was almost as if I had a hold on the temper Riley had warned me about for so long. That didn’t mean, however, that I was going to go easy on my partner. Ross and I had been sparring ever since he’d joined the gym two years ago. The first time Riley put him in the ring with me, the kid looked like he was about to shit himself. I thought Riley was out of his mind. Ross was sixteen. I was ten years older than him and probably had about fifty pounds on him. But I should have known better. Riley knew me better than almost anyone alive – and he’d picked Ross for a reason. He was like I had been – angry, overcome with the need to hit something to let out his anger and frustration. I taught him not only how to channel that anger, but also to take a hit like a champ. I had no doubt that he’d soon be ready for amateur fights. That was, just as long as he stayed away from the juice. At the thought, I frowned. There had been a period when I first started competing when I would have done anything to get bigger – anything to be the best. It was then that I met Ivan, and I’d regretted being on his roster ever since. My brief foray into the world of steroids hadn’t been pretty. Yeah, they made me stronger and faster, but they also made me feel like I had the worst hangover imaginable twenty-four seven. My head always hurt, and at a point in my life where I was just coming close to understanding my anger, the juice multiplied it exponentially. I snapped at anyone and anything at the slightest trigger. So I stopped. And I’d been dealing with a pissed-off Ivan ever since. That was the last path I wanted Ross to go down; and that day, on top all the shit that had gone down last night, I’d found empty containers with injectable steroids in his bag. I was pissed. So pissed that yelling at him wasn’t going to cut it. So we took it to the ring. From the moment we stepped beneath the ropes, Ross knew I wasn’t going to take it easy on him. What I needed to make him understand was that I wasn’t punishing him for

doing the stuff; I was punishing him for selling himself short. I’d be damned if I watched the kid suffer like I did for some edge he thought he’d gain. So I went hard. Usually, Ross would be able to land a punch or two, but today I wasn’t having it. When he came at me, I dodged every single blow he attempted, finally going for his shoulder. I lashed out with enough force to drive him back – even if the punch didn’t completely land. Knowing I wasn’t about to play nice, Ross got his hand up to block. And I took my opening. I kicked him twice, in rapid succession, and he hit the ropes, momentarily stunned. I went after him, cracking my knuckles as I advanced. Ross recovered with just enough time to dodge my next punch. I was basically chasing him around the ring – but then again, I wouldn’t want to be hit by me when I was pissed either. As I easily sidestepped a front kick, I turned to walk away from him, winding up for my next attack. And in that moment, time seemed to stop. It seemed that the reporter who was supposed to interview me had arrived – and I was in a fucking world of trouble. Blondes. Why did it always have to be blondes? If I was pulling a comparison, though, this one made the one from last night look like the fucking hunchback of Notre Dame. She was tall and slender, with long, long legs and hips that wouldn’t quit. She wore a dark navy dress that was relatively modest, but, like the dog I was, I only wanted to see what it exposed. The elegant, pale line of her neck, the full length of those gorgeous, perfect legs…and then there was her face. The face of an angel. Full, rosy mouth and pert nose with high, almost regal cheekbones. Her eyes were a soft caramel color, and a patch of freckles painted her nose and forehead. That sweet, innocent face was framed by a fall of blonde waves that went nearly to her waist, and immediately, I imagined what they might look like fanned out over the pillows of my bed. What she might look like. It was clear from her sack-like blue dress to the flats she wore that this girl definitely wasn’t dressed to impress. What she needed was something slinky – tiny. Something that accentuated what I suspected was a damned divine chest and those magnificent gams. But that wouldn’t be her style. No. I wouldn’t be surprised if she went to church every Sunday and volunteered on Friday afternoons. The air of innocence that hung around her was almost like a halo. And fuck if I didn’t want to corrupt the hell out of it.

Unfortunately, while I was eye-fucking her, Ross was busy getting the drop on me. I came back to reality when his foot connected with my jaw with enough force to send stars bursting to life before my vision. I hit the floor, hard, and I could immediately taste blood in my mouth. For a brief second, the world went blank, and I sagged to the mat with a curse on my lips. I couldn’t have been out for long. But when I came to, it was to the sight of those mouthwatering legs I’d just been admiring mere feet away from my face. She was in the goddamn ring, along with Riley, staring down at my sprawled form with mild amusement in her gaze. It takes a lot to embarrass me. I’ve drunk myself into a near coma in public places all over the world. Fucked women with their ankles over balconies and gone swimming naked in the Mediterranean. But the combination of the blonde goddess, Riley, and Ross all staring expectantly was enough to make my gut twist. Fuck. She was supposed to be interviewing one of the world’s greatest fighters and the first thing she saw was me getting knocked on my ass. Great first impression. I got quickly to my feet, wiping blood from the corner of my mouth as I glared at Ross. His expression went from triumphant to scared within the space of a millisecond and he knew that he was going to have to pay. Just not at this exact moment. “Griffin.” I met Riley’s gaze, still tasting blood in my mouth as I scowled. “Meet Sadie Warner. She’s with The Grind. Wants to ask you some questions.” Sadie. Sweet Sadie. I managed to collect myself enough to extend a wrapped hand. She seemed to hesitate slightly before placing her slender, pale one in my grip. Her skin was soft, and she smelled like peaches. I fucking loved peaches. “Pleasure,” I grunted, hoping there wasn’t still blood on my mouth. Sadie gazed up at me, her eyes widening slightly. A tiny tongue darted out quickly to lick her lips and I swear to God I nearly hauled her off to the locker room right there and then.

I knew exactly what I’d do to her too. Technically, there weren’t any women allowed in the men’s locker room, but for her, I’d make an exception. Bundle her into the shower and keep her wet until that god-awful dress got drenched – and became infinitely more appealing. Then, I’d peel it off her, expose all that glowing skin… I wanted to see what color her nipples were. I was willing to bet they were sweet, pink, and perky. She would squirm when I sucked on them. Then she would scream when my mouth found the haven between her legs and found out just how tight she was. At the intensity of my stare, Sadie flushed slightly and I loosened my grip. I must look like a goddamn predator. I’d always had trouble hiding my true nature. If there was one good thing my father ever taught me, it was that we can’t fight who we really are. And I was a fucking monster.


If I thought Griffin was mouthwatering from all the way across the gym, up close he was enough to scramble my very educated brain. He was a good six inches or so taller than me, and from three feet away, I could see every ridge of every divine muscle. It was enough to make me forget that I’d just seen him get taken down by a kid half his size. Though, when I thought about it, Griffin had seemed kind of distracted when the teenager had kicked him. In the face. Apart from looking a little dazed, the man appeared no worse for wear- though the telltale spot of blood at the edge of his mouth was enough to let me know that he’d been dealt some damage. When his vibrant green eyes met mine, however, it was hard to think of anything. He held out a hand wrapped thickly with white bandages – stained with sweat, and I hesitated a moment before taking it. The contact was like an electric shock. Sensation jolted down my arm, shooting down to pool warmth between my legs – where I was already uncomfortably damp. As I looked up at Griffin, the scent of him assaulted me – sweat, spice, and masculine musk. It was no wonder women threw themselves at him. The man’s biceps were as big as my thighs, for God’s sake, and the way he moved…When he took my hand, the low, gruff baritone that escaped him made every muscle in my body tense. Of course, a fighter like Griffin Webb would have a low, growly tone that matched his demeanor. Though he attested that it was a pleasure to meet me, he still hadn’t smiled. Nor would he ever, I reckoned. Was it awful that I thought the man was no less gorgeous for it? We held hands for perhaps a beat too long, his gaze so intense on mine that I flushed slightly. It was almost like he was trying to look into me – to test my mettle and to see what I was made of. The very notion made me swallow thickly. I had a crazy impulse to just sink to my knees before him – to worship that amazing body of his and taste every bead of sweat that adorned it. But that was ridiculous. I was ridiculous.

It took a moment, but I managed to snap myself out of the trance – and once I did, the anger started. Not at Griffin Webb, but at myself. What the hell was I doing? I was supposed to be interviewing this man – making cover history, and here I was mooning over him. Sure, Griffin was good-looking but so were tons of other guys! Guys that were violent, brusque, and left a trail of broken hearts in their wake. As if I needed a reminder of why I stuck to intellectuals. They weren’t trying to screw their way through the world’s population of models and superstars. They didn’t prance around half-naked most of the time, and wouldn’t start a fight if you paid them. Intellectuals were safe. Griffin Webb was almost certainly the opposite. I slipped my hand from his grasp, clearing my throat as I tried to regain my confidence. “I have to admit, you don’t disappoint, Mr. Webb.” If anything, his scowl only deepened – making me long to kiss it away. “Call me Griffin. No one calls me ‘Mr. Webb’.” He was already getting familiar – which did nothing to serve my nerves. “Alright then, Griffin” My lips quirked a bit as I glanced at the teen who had knocked him out. “Do you usually let kids get the drop on you?” Behind me, Riley snickered before taking his leave, stepping through the ropes to head elsewhere in the gym. “Hell no!” I was surprised when the kid himself piped up. I turned to face him with an arched brow. “I never fucking get a hit in on this guy.” He seemed to realize what he’d said, and flushed slightly. “I mean…he’s good, Ma’am. I just got lucky.” I looked back at Griffin to see him cracking his neck as he rotated his massive shoulders – and my breath started to come a little faster. “Ross has got an ass-kicking coming to him.” The menacing way the dark-haired fighter spoke made me shiver. “You arrived just in time to save him.” Well, wasn’t I the lucky one? Clearing my throat, I tried to change the subject. I needed to talk about something that would get my mind of Griffin’s incredible body – and his devil-may-care attitude. “Well, why don’t we find a quieter place to have a discussion? The publication has prepared a plethora of questions for you. The answers should tantalize our readers.” Griffin just stared at me as if I’d just spoken in another language. “English please?”

Jesus Christ. Here I was chomping at the bit to get in this man’s pants and he didn’t even understand three syllable words. What was wrong with me? Webb was a bruiser, pure and simple; and like all other bruisers, he was most probably a moron to boot. Hardly even worth my time. But I’d come for the story and I wasn’t leaving without it. When I next spoke, I couldn’t help the sarcasm that colored my tone.” The interview. Is there a place where we can do it?” As snide as I was being, I couldn’t stop the slight tremor that crept into my voice. He’s not worth it, I tried repeating to myself, Get a hold of yourself. But even channeling my nervousness into snark wasn’t helping me very much. “Right.” To my surprise, Griffin’s lips quirked into what might have been the tiniest hint of a smirk. “And how long is this interview supposed to take?” Ross took that as his cue to take his leave. He slipped away in much the same manner Riley had, disappearing into what I assumed was the locker room. And leaving me alone with Webb. Well, we weren’t alone per se, but when I was the only person in that ring with him, the other occupants of the gym didn’t seem to matter as much. He filled my vision, assaulted all of my senses, and made me uncomfortably hot. My solution? More condescension. “It’s an interview.” I replied dryly, crossing my hands over my chest to put some distance between us. “When you’ve answered all of the questions to my satisfaction, I’ll be out of your hair.” One of Griffin’s brows shot upward. “Your satisfaction?” He chuckled, the sound dark, chocolaty and utterly devastating to my libido. “Look, sweetheart, calm down. I’ll answer all your questions.” Sweetheart? I sure as hell wasn’t this callous man’s sweetheart. I couldn’t even imagine the emotional wreckage he made of anyone he deemed worthy of a pet name. “And I promise,” my attention jerked back to him when he continued, “by the time we’re done you’ll be very satisfied.” I don’t think my womb had ever clenched harder in my life. This man was challenging everything I formerly thought defined sexy: articulation, education, poise…Griffin Webb was none of those things. And yet every part of my body was screaming for him. “I’d appreciate it if you weren’t so familiar,” I managed, with a thin smile, “I like to keep things professional.”

“Oh, I’m sure you do.” Griffin leaned back onto his heels, mimicking my stance as he crossed his arms over his well-sculpted chest. As he looked down at me, his eyes burned, and I had to tell myself that the man probably looked at every pair of boobs that way. He wanted a conquest, but I wasn’t going to give him one. At least…I hoped I wasn’t. “But unless you’re willing to go head-to-head with me in the ring just now, sweetheart,” He went there again, this time purposefully to raise my ire, “I have to take a rain check. I’m in the middle of training for a match at the end of the week.” My eyes widened in outrage. A rain check? After I had battled my way through traffic to get downtown – after I got all my hopes up that this would be my big break? “What do you mean?” I blurted – though I knew very well what he meant. He was putting me off. Griffin sighed, shaking his head slowly. “I’m currently in the midst of preparing myself for confrontation.” He couldn’t have surprised me more if he’d physically struck me – and judging from his imperious expression, he knew it. “Am I speaking your language now, Ms. Warner?” I wanted to be angry. Usually, I would be. Even mild-mannered Sadie didn’t take too well to men lording over her. But for some reason, the anger didn’t come. Instead, I was hit with a fresh wave of arousal. There seemed to be no possible way I could ruffle this man’s feathers. I supposed I shouldn’t have been surprised. He’d knocked out more men in the cage than I had ever dated – was I supposed to scare him with my standoffish attitude? Apparently not. But there we found ourselves at an impasse. I needed that article, and if I wasn’t mistaken, Webb had just told me no. Which left me with sweaty palms, a racing heart, and a butt-load of sexual tension that I had no idea what to do with. How was I supposed to change his mind? More importantly, how was I supposed to regain my cool and stop seeing the man as a very intimidating bruiser who obviously had the upper hand? If I didn’t find a way, I was totally and completely screwed.


She was nervous as hell. That much was obvious the minute she started talking. I might not be the most gentlemanly character around, but I knew my fair share about women. I’d been with more of them than I could count and by that time in my life, I was used to them clamoring after me as if their life depended on worshipping my cock. I could immediately tell that Sadie wasn’t the type. The way she held herself – ramrod straight, as if someone was holding a forty-five millimeter at the base of her spine – I didn’t think I’d ever seen a woman so tense. Up close, it was even more obvious that she wore that huge excuse for a dress to hide her assets – which were plentiful. She did everything possible to make herself seem less appealing – and that little detail spoke volumes. This woman obviously had no idea how much power she could have over a man. I wondered if anyone had ever picked her up and tossed her onto a bed. Demanded that she not say a word as they fucked her into a near coma – until she was utterly exhausted and deliciously sore. No, little Sadie Warner wasn’t the type that liked to be tossed around. I wouldn’t be surprised if the men she dated asked her permission before they kissed her. They probably bowed and scraped and bored her with academic bullshit as they missionary-positioned her to sleep. She needed to relax – and by that, I meant the utter and complete relaxation that came from total exhaustion. I wanted to see that sleepy smile on her face as she drifted off to sleep, her world utterly blown. But that would obviously be easier said than done. The moment Ross left and she realized that we were relatively alone, she went a whole lot stiffer. She was afraid. I could all but smell the fear rolling off of her and it made every muscle in my upper body tense. Was it because she’d seen me fight – because she knew about my track record? Or was it something else entirely? From where she was standing, I knew that I was probably the last candidate on her list of bedpartners. Bringing someone like me home would shock and disappoint her parents – I’d chew with my mouth open and finger that sweet little pussy of hers under the table. What was it, I wondered, that made me so suddenly hot over this girl? She was fire, for sure, but I’d dated models, prima ballerinas and the like. I’d never been so instantly,

intensely drawn to a woman. I wanted to corrupt the hell out of her. Put her in skimpy dresses and heels and let her ride my cock until she loosened up a little bit. Until she begged for it. But she seemed focused on the task at hand – that damn interview. She was trying to be frosty – tossing her head and rolling her eyes when I spoke – but that was all a front. I could clearly see the way her slender fingers trembled slightly – the way her tongue darted out to wet her lips. She thought she was smarter than me. And hell, she probably was. I had no problem admitting that. I barely finished high school, and I wasn’t winning any awards for academic achievement. Little Ms. Warner fairly oozed Ivy League appeal. Every other word that came out of her mouth was straight from the most obscure corners of Webster. But she wasn’t fooling me. I liked the fear that emanated from her. I reveled in it because it let me know just where we stood. It might take me a few tries, but if I wanted Sadie Warner, I could have her. And she didn’t even know it yet. So, of course, I wasn’t going to do the damn interview just then. I was busy, and atop that, the gym certainly wasn’t a place where I could make her scream. When I told her no, the look on her face was priceless – both disbelief and sudden panic, as if I had suddenly yanked the carpet out from under her. By the time I was done with Sadie, she was going to know exactly who was in charge here. “Are you saying you won’t do it?” Goddamn, she was cute all puffed up and offended. Her brown eyes narrowed as she glared at me in irritation. “You promised The Grind a story. Are you going back on your word?” She had no idea how much I wanted to jerk her to her knees and fill that pretty mouth with my cock. But that would come later…and I could be patient. “Not going back on my word,” I replied casually, hiding my smile. “Just rescheduling. I’m busy, Sadie, and I don’t think you want to be chasing me around a ring.” Her mouth pursed in disappointment. “The publication is due out at the end of this week. How long do you plan on taking?” Usually, it annoyed the shit out of me when women got demanding. They usually didn’t have a leg to stand on, and they wanted money, flowers, nice shoes – some shit like that. It was around that time that I ended up kicking them out.

But this was different. It was clear that Sadie wasn’t going to let this go – she really thought I wasn’t going to give her the interview, and her delectable ass wasn’t having it. Fuck, she was hot. “I’m on a tight training schedule.” I shot back, swallowing past the lump of lust that rose in my throat. “I’ll be here until this evening.” She started to protest, but I cut her off. “After I clean up a little bit, I can take you to dinner. You can ask all the questions your little heart desires.” The immediate shock on her face was almost enough to make me hard on the spot. She didn’t want to be alone with me – but it was going to happen. There was no other way she was getting her precious interview – I’d make sure of that. “I…I’m not going to dinner with you!” Her answer wasn’t quite as articulate as she’d been with me just a few minutes before. Poor Sadie. It seemed the cat had her tongue - and very soon, I would too. “Why can’t we do it somewhere else?” “Like where?” I asked, amused. “Out on the sidewalk? In a public park after dark? Let me take you out, Sadie. I promise I’ll be on my very best behavior.” I almost felt guilty for lying – almost. I could see the gears in her head turning – she’d been backed into a corner and she didn’t like it. Her slender form was fairly trembling with anger. But if she was as smart as she appeared to be, Sadie wouldn’t refuse me. She had more guts than that. She hesitated for maybe a minute before I saw a determined light shine in her eyes. Setting her jaw, she gazed up at me sternly, her hands going to her hips. “Fine.” She finally barked, clearly unhappy about it. “But I can’t give you my whole evening. I’ll have material to edit.” This woman was just aching for a good spanking. I wondered what would happen if I laid her over my knee right in the middle of the gym. “Fine by me. Where should I pick you up?” She flushed slightly. “You can come to The Grind office. I get off around six.” If I had anything to do with it, she’d be getting off long after that. “Works for me.” I frowned as I eyed that god-awful dress for what had to be the fifth time in as many minutes. It wasn’t going to do – not for the place I planned to take her. “You should probably change before then.” Her face flushed even darker than it had before as she glared at me in obvious affront. “What’s wrong with what I’m wearing?”

I merely eyed her. I wasn’t the best with words, but I could, at least, try to put this delicately. She was already pissed at me. As much as I liked her angry, I didn’t want her too angry. “We’re going somewhere nice...maybe something a little slinkier?” For a moment, her mouth moved but she didn’t speak. It was clear that I’d struck a nerve, and I fought a chuckle. “Just don’t be late!” Sadie finally managed, before turning on her heel to stomp to the edge of the ring. She attempted to crouch under the ropes, only to become tangled in them hopelessly. Though I was tempted to let her keep struggling with that dainty little chin of hers in the air, I had training to get back to. Stepping over to the ropes, I took hold of them, widening the gap so that she could escape. Sadie all but fell onto the floor with a huff, and I cursed under my breath. Her dress had almost – almost hiked up enough for me to see what kind of panties she wore. But there would be plenty of time for that later. As she sauntered off, I only smirked before glancing around the room looking for Ross. The time had come for him to get his ass beat – and for me to leech some of the hunger from my system. As it was, the only thing that kept me from getting hard right there was my minuscule sense of propriety. Beating the shit out of Ross would make me feel better – that I knew. The moment I spotted him at a punching bag in the corner, I barked his name and the kid jumped, his gaze rising to me. When I beckoned him, he came without question. He knew he was in trouble. Once he reached the side of the ring, my eyes narrowed. “If I ever catch your ass juicing again,” I threatened in a low tone, “I’ll fucking break your back. It would ruin you just as easily.” Ross swallowed thickly, visibly paling. In his own neighborhood, he was king of the hill. He was a good fighter, so none of the thugs that haunted street corners messed with him. But I had helped make him that way – and he needed to keep his head on straight. “Get up here.” I ordered – and he did so without a single complaint. He would take his punishment, and if I were lucky, we wouldn’t have this discussion again. It would be a long fucking time before Ross got the drop on me again – or Ivan got the drop on him. I ended up getting more done that day than I would have imagined. Though it started pretty shittily, I managed to be productive. I kicked Ross’ ass from one end of the ring to the other – so enthusiastically that half the gym was watching by the time it was over. And then I worked with Riley. The man might be getting up in years, but there was no denying that he had taught me everything I knew. He was closing in on fifty and he could still wipe the floor with me when he wanted. Luckily enough, these days he was less concentrated on his own glory and more

focused on giving back. Riley had always been more about technique and teaching others. Even in his heyday, when he’d been the second most talented fighter in the world, he had trained in a gym just like the one he trained me in. He’d never subscribed to the glitz and glamor that accompanied being a top fighter – preferring to keep to himself and train by himself. Unlike me, he’d married early, and his wife, Marie, had supported him for his entire career. He had a daughter, somewhere or the other, who had never approved of the brutality he participated in and didn’t speak to him these days. He still sent her money and cards for every important holiday – just as he visited Marie’s grave every year on the anniversary. While Riley could be just as much a dog as me when it came to the world of women, he always regretted breaking his Marie’s heart – and the way that she died. Me, I wasn’t built for a wife and kids – and anyway, Riley always told me that things like that were the one true path to heartbreak. I didn’t need to be told twice. By the time I was dancing around the cage with my trainer, my head was clearer. My shots were clearer – and I knew that I had that upcoming match in the bag. I might not have been undefeated, but the matches I’d lost came early in my career. I couldn’t remember the last time someone had knocked me out when I was ready for them. Ross hardly counted. I worked out until I was sore – and until Riley was satisfied that I could turn on a dime. After an entire day in the ring, most fighters would be ready to fall into bed with a drink more alcohol than anything else. But I was energized. Not that I subscribed to such bullshit, but I almost sang in the shower as I remembered who I had waiting for me later that evening. Sadie Warner. The memory of that lithe, lush body of hers was enough to make me stand at attention almost instantly. She was such a mouthy little thing – easily shocked and just as easily offended. I fully intended to rough her up a little bit – show her what she’d been missing. With a hiss, I wrapped calloused fingers around my erection, leaning against the wall as hot water poured over my back. The heated column jumped in my fist and I began to stroke slowly as I imagined little Sadie’s fingers replacing mine I’d be willing to bet those pencil-necked intellectuals of hers never asked her to do anything like this. Would she even know to grip a cock? How to stroke it slowly and tease the tip? She wouldn’t have to be all that gentle with me. I could take everything she could dish out and more.

I wanted to see her face – to see the desire in her eyes as she worked me over. And then I would bend her over the nearest available surface and fuck her until she was screaming my name – to show her how a real man made a woman feel. The thought of that hot little mouth of hers parted in pleasure and her ragged gasps were all it took to send me over the edge. I came harder than I had in a long time, splattering the dingy tile wall with spurts of white as my hips jerked in sensation. Jesus Christ. I’d known the woman all of a few hours and already I wanted her so badly it was hard to think straight. Quickly I rinsed off, wiping evidence of my release from the wall and hosing down the entire stall. I was like a goddamn teenager, rubbing one out in P.E class. But the relief meant that I would be able to concentrate on impressing Sadie later – and I would have to impress her if I wanted to get anywhere near touching her. I may have been an animal, but I wasn’t a rapist. When I got back to my locker, I frowned at the sight of the clothes that hung in the far end. Riley had been urging me for years to keep a spare set in my locker for when I was forced to attend evening events. For once, I was glad that I had followed his advice. Saved me a trip home. I pulled on the dark button up and slacks before packing up my stuff. By the time I left, my shoulders were aching from the day’s workout - a good indicator that I had given it my all. I was in a good mood when I stepped out into the fresh air. After all, I had a date with a beautiful woman to look forward to. That was well worth answering a few questions. However, once I saw who was waiting for me outside, my good mood evaporated. I stopped dead once I stepped onto the sidewalk, acid rising from my stomach to make my mouth taste sour. Of course, Ivan would be here. As if my morning hadn’t already been shitty enough. I turned to face him, my gym bag slung over my shoulder, scowl firmly in place. As always, Ivan rolled in crews five deep, and, this time was no exception. He was accompanied by four of his thugs – all huge and unnecessarily muscled. The muscles made up for what they lacked in brainpower, I knew. Even though I barely had a high school education, I could think circles around these guys. They were there purely for the size of their biceps. And Ivan wasn’t wrong to have them. If he’d been alone, I would have pummeled him to a pulp and enjoyed every second of it. “Nice to see you, Griffin. I might think you were avoiding me. All those missed calls.” Despite years

stateside, the Russian still sounded like he was fresh off the boat. “You know damn well what I’m doing,” I shot back, taking him in from head to foot. The man needed a ton of muscle around because he sure as hell couldn’t defend himself. He was a pot-bellied, with graying hair and a mustache that looked like a fireplace had taken a shit on his upper lip. Even now, I couldn’t believe I had ever trusted this guy. “What are you doing here, Ivan? I thought I told you to stay away from this gym.” My eyes narrowed in anger. “And away from Ross.” The stuff I’d found in the kid's bag couldn’t have come from anyone else. Ivan had this neighborhood on lock and liked to use his goons on whoever didn’t agree with him. The Russian glared at me, straightening from where he leaned against the building and advancing, along with his entourage. “You do not tell me what to do, Webb.” He barked. “This is my neighborhood, and as far as I’m concerned, you owe me.” Oh, fuck. He was on this again. Ivan tended to think that because I’d been on the 'roids when my career started to take off that he was the reason for my success. The truth was that I got better once I stopped juicing. But, of course, no one could tell Ivan that. He’d been after me to pay him for years, but he’d never get a cent of my hard-earned money. Not if I could help it. “Ivan, I don’t have time for this bullshit. I’m not paying you a penny, and the next time I catch you around here, I’m going to call the cops and get your ass deported.” I knew I’d hit a nerve when two of his bodyguards’ lips curled and they moved forward menacingly. If they wanted to fight, I was more than ready – though it would be a pity that I’d have to get my nice clothes messed up. Ivan caught my eye, his smile thin. “You sure I can’t convince you otherwise?” Fucking Christ. I didn’t have time for this. Dropping my bag, I made to move forward - a second before a city cop strolled into view. I swore to God, the motherfuckers could smell trouble. He made a beeline for me, his expression concerned. Half the law in this town could recognize me from a half mile away, and this one was no different. “Problem, Mr. Webb?” One of the pitfalls of being famous was now everyone knew when I got in trouble. But if I fucked up there, I wouldn’t be able to meet Sadie that night – no doubt playing into her idea that I was nothing but trouble. “Nothing at all, Officer.” I managed, casting Ivan a warning glare before I addressed the cop once more. “I was just leaving. Hot date.”

The older man’s eyes narrowed. “As long as it doesn’t end up like last night.” Jesus Christ. Everyone was a judge. I said nothing, merely striding to my Jag and tossing my bag in before getting ready to make tracks. As I slipped into the luxury car, my gaze met Ivan’s once more, and I read the threat there clear as day. He wasn’t ready to let this go - which meant I’d hear from him again before too long.


“You’re doing what? With who?” At Stella’s shrill inquiry, I resisted the urge to cover my ears. If I had to call someone at work my best friend, she would be it. She and I had bitched for years that Alex was never going to give me a shot at a cover story. Now that he had, Stella was excited for me – but for all the wrong reasons. I sighed, rolling my eyes. “It’s just for the story,” I insisted, trying not to think about Griffin’s burning green eyes or his insisting that I wear something slinky. “I have no intention of doing anything with him.” “Why the hell not!?” Stella’s violently red curls fell down around her face as she demanded an answer from me. She had bright blue eyes and wasn’t near as fond of her freckles as I was. What Stella was fond of was seeing how much cleavage she could get away with showing in the office – and she was infinitely more blessed than I was. She was also a far better flirt. “He’s nothing but a hare-brained bad boy.” I replied dryly. “Tries to screw anything that moves.” “Have you taken a good look at him?” Stella insisted, her blue eye wide. “I mean a really good look? Sadie, the man’s got the body of a Greek god.” The only way I could have gotten a closer look at Griffin would be if I had been on top of him, which was what I was sure Stella was aiming for. “Yeah, and the IQ of a shrub.” I added with a sigh, taking a bite of my sandwich. After all that had happened that morning, I had decided to get out of the office for lunch. Luckily, I hadn’t run into Alex. If I did, I was going to have to admit why I hadn’t gotten the story yet. And the less my boss knew, the better. Stella, on the other hand, was a different story. I trusted her – even if she did seem hell bent on finding out what Griffin Webb looked like naked. “I just want to get this info so I can have my cover.” “And the fact that the man is absolutely gorgeous makes no never mind to you, right?” Stella arched a suspicious brow. I repressed a groan. It shouldn’t matter. I was a reporter, a writer and a professional – not some idiot fan ready to fall at Griffin’s feet and worship him. Truth be told, the man was rude and arrogant. He all but told me my dress wasn’t appropriate for a date with him and blackmailed me into said date.

Taking a deep breath, I exhaled slowly. This was not a date. It was more like a…business meeting. I’d eat before I went and there would be no small talk. We’d get straight to the point and then that would be that. “So, are you going in that?” My mouth fell open at Stella’s question. I glanced down at the navy dress I wore, pursing my lips. “What’s wrong with this?” Stella eyed me like she thought I might be a few French fries short of a happy meal. “Even if you’re going for professional, Sadie, that thing is awful.” Awful!? “My mother bought this for my birthday!’ “Exactly.” Stella chuckled good-naturedly. “When’s the last time your mom got laid?” I grimaced at the question. That was one of the last things I wanted to be thinking about at that particular moment. "Stella, give me a break. I don’t want to get laid.” She exhaled impatiently. “So are you telling me you want to walk into a high-class restaurant dressed like a kindergarten teacher?” Jesus, that was harsh. But I could always count on Stella to shoot straight from the hip. I glanced down at the dress once more and frowned. I’d worn it so much that it was a bit frayed on the edges, and the color had faded. It was my favorite because I could walk down the street in it without getting a ridiculous amount of catcalls. It hid what I wanted it to hide. But it was also a size or two too big – wishful thinking on my mother’s part that I’d gain a little weight. I scowled, touching the thin cotton. “If I were to change,” I huffed, knowing I was digging my own grave. “What would you expect me to wear?” Stella grinned – a gesture I’d long learned was ridiculously dangerous. She only grinned if she was conspiring against someone, and I didn’t want it to be me. Though I had barely finished half of my sandwich, the redhead leaped up, tossing a handful of bills onto the table before she dragged me towards the restaurant’s exit. “Come on! We don’t have much time!” “Where are we going?” I yanked my arm out of her grip the moment we emerged into daylight and she laughed in anticipation. “Shopping.” Oh, hell.

I never really liked to shop. For me it was just exhausting, nothing ever fit, and I felt that trying to look good always backfired. When I wore a dress to work, all the guys started sniffing around me like dogs in heat and it made me desperately uncomfortable. So why, I asked myself as Stella dragged me into a department store, had my knees taken on the consistency of putty when Griffin looked at me with interest? He was the last man on the planet that I should be attracted to. But I was…that I had to, at least, admit to myself. When his eyes had roamed over me in the gym, I felt more woman in that instant than I had in my entire life. I’d had boyfriends tell me I was pretty, my parents told me I was beautiful at every opportunity, but Griffin didn’t seem like the type to pay a woman frivolous compliments. Sure, he probably tossed around the words beautiful and gorgeous, but it was probably while he was tossing women around hotel rooms. Subjugating them. Fucking them. I shuddered at the prospect. “What about this one?” Stella held up a dress that looked as though it might be made of floss and tissue paper and I merely stared at her. Was she out of her mind? Though we only had about twenty minutes left in out lunch break, Stella called in and got us an extra twenty – which meant she had plenty of time to drag me around the store and insist I try on everything. When I suggested that I might just go home and change into something, she glared at me as if I’d just insulted her mother. Despite her best efforts, I wasn’t going to let the redhead dress me like a skank. When we did leave the store, I had a two-piece suit in hand. Something that even Stella had to admit complimented my curves without revealing too much. Beneath it’ I’d wear a modest white shirt, and that would be that. I stowed the bag under my desk at work and spent the rest of the afternoon trying concertedly not to think about Griffin Webb. I worked on the article I’d submitted when I came in that morning – which had been returned to me all but gutted. I e-mailed my parents, texted my landlord about the rent and read articles on writing until I thought my eyes would fall out of my head. And all the while, my gaze kept dropping to the minimized window at the bottom of my screen. Why, exactly, hadn’t I closed it yet? It was the search window I used to look for information on Griffin before I went to the gym. And at that point, with nothing else to do, I made sure no one was watching me as I guiltily maximized it. Immediately, heat rushed to my face.

It was just as I thought – the images didn’t do him justice. Thanks to my encounter that afternoon I now had a very vivid image in my mind of exactly what Griffin looked like. And he was even more mouthwatering than his fans could imagine. In my mind’s eye, I saw him again – standing in the center of the practice ring, his bare torso covered in sweat as he threw punch after punch. He moved almost like a man possessed, and the glint in his eyes was at once frightening and more arousing than anything I’d ever come across. Swallowing thickly, I let my eyes move over image after image. In some, it was obvious that he’d just finished a match while, in others, he took on a more casual persona – but in all of them, Griffin clearly radiated an aura of untouchability. Unless you wanted to get your arm broken. My eyes widened at a particular picture where he was all but naked, the only thing covering he more delicate parts of him a well-placed towel. He had a tattoo…. well, he had several, but the others I had had just chalked up as contributions to his bad boy allure. This one in particular…well, it was a full-blown, intimately inked dragon that covered his hip and upper thigh. Hard to pull off for most women, if your body wasn’t ridiculously perfect. But on Griffin, with his finely muscled thighs and decadent, long legs… I forced myself to tear my eyes away as I forcibly closed the window. Glancing at the clock on the wall above my cubicle, I frowned. I’d be done in just a few hours – which meant that, in that time, I was going to have to find some way to keep my head around Griffin Webb Though I might have wanted them to pass more slowly and give me time to calm down, the hours seemed to fly by. It didn’t help that every hour, on the hour, Stella came by my cubicle to give me a thumbs up and a raunchy wink. By the time five rolled around, my nerves were shot with a mixture of anxiety and anticipation. I went to the bathroom to change into my suit and had a crisis where I almost convinced myself that the skirt was too short and scrapped the whole thing. But then I thought of my cover – and did what I had to get my career off the ground in the first place: I swallowed my fears and revved myself up. After an entire afternoon of self-doubt, in thirty minutes, I managed to use the prospect of my cover as the ultimate inspiration. I would get in, get out, and get the goods – damn Griffin and his killer body. I was a career woman. I was immune. And I continued to hold steadfast until I stepped outside to see the sun starting to sink below the horizon.

And Griffin waiting for me. For a moment, I forgot how to speak. The man had parked dead center in the lot – where there wasn’t even a space. He leaned against his car as if it were the most casual thing in the world, and he managed, somehow, to be even more gorgeous than the ostentatious vehicle he drove. The car was pretty ridiculous. Yet, there I stood, admiring both him and it, feeling somewhat like the fawning idiot I’d promised myself that I wouldn’t be. The only reason I even knew the car was a Jaguar was because of all the car talk the guys spouted in the office. They brought in new car magazines for the break room every week, and for their reliability, I recognized the gleaming, black vehicle Griffin leaned against as a Jaguar F-Type – both flashy and at the same time understated. If my coworkers caught sight of it, they would no doubt drool all over their very fragile senses of masculinity. I tried to remind myself that the car was upwards of seventy thousand dollars and that Griffin had earned that money beating the hell out of other men…but at that moment, all I could think was that car and driver suited each other very well. Griffin cleaned up very nicely. It was the first time I’d seen him with a shirt on and said shirt hugged his broad shoulders and narrow waist as if it had been tailored to fit. The dark-gray color set off his green eyes, and a pair of slacks hugged long legs I knew to be powerful and muscular. His shoes were expensive – some name brand or the other, but I didn’t linger on them for long. I was too taken by the way he was looking at me – staring, actually. Those eyes of his were like molten emeralds, his bulky arms crossed over his chest as he took me in from head to foot. The suit I’d thought was more than modest enough half an hour ago was suddenly the most scandalous thing in the entire cosmos, and I wanted to run back to my desk. But that would have shown a cowardice that was completely beneath me. Griffin Webb was just a man. A man that made my heart pound and my thighs clench, but a man nonetheless. I could handle him. “Oh. My. God.” I looked over my shoulder to see that Stella had followed me out of the building – probably for some last minute pep talk or something like that. However, whatever she meant to do was completely forgotten when she laid eyes on the column of muscle and sinew that was Griffin. She licked her lips and I suppressed a groan. Here we went. Stella’s eyes darted to mine a moment before she mouthed the words ‘He’s delicious’. If she wanted him, she was welcome to him. The only reason that I didn’t foist this particular assignment off on her was that it was a cover. My cover.

And I was willing to do anything for it. I decided that I’d better move along before the rest of the office had a chance to come out and gawk at me too. “Thanks for this afternoon, Stella.” I gave her a brief hug that I wasn’t sure she felt – her eyes were still fixed on Griffin like he was a damn Thanksgiving turkey – before I quickly descended the front steps and hurried over to the man. The moment I came within three feet of him, the spicy scent of his cologne enveloped me and my knees almost buckled. It wasn’t right that one man should be so goddamn male. I was pretty sure teddy bears and balloons internally combusted right before his eyes. He was a singular force of nature – and it was apparent why so many women were dying to get their hands on him. I stopped before him, struggling to keep my expression neutral as I clutched my bag to me like a lifeline. If my libido decided to manifest itself in physical form and shove me at him, at least, I could fend her off. The man’s eyes gave me a slow once over, from the top of my head to the tips of my toes, and I might have been wearing nothing at all. “You look nice.” His rough words rolled over me and I swallowed thickly. I could do this. I could. “Well, someone agreed that my dress was kind of ratty.” He smirked – a small quirking of his lips that was simultaneously infuriating and devilish. “It was hideous.” I arched a brow, my hackles rising at his commentary. “Hideous. That’s a big word, isn’t it, Griffin?” “I have a shit ton of hidden talents, Sadie.” His expression still smug, the man straightened to open the passenger side door for me. “Just get to know me.” Ever eloquent. Rolling my eyes, I slid into the car – and immediately but silently marveled at its luxury. The most buttery, softest leather seats I’d ever encountered, tinted windows, a touch screen navigational system…and the entire space smelled like he did. By the time he slipped into the driver’s seat, I was thoroughly – secretly – impressed. Even as the rational part of me jibed that if he were really a good man, the seventy thousand could have gone towards a worthier cause. “Jessica here was one of my first purchases when I started winning title matches.” I looked over at him, my eyes widening in disbelief. “Jessica?” I inquired. “You named your car?”

Griffin patted the dashboard lovingly. “Most reliable woman in my life.” Well, he couldn’t screw the car. That probably helped a good amount. When he revved the vehicle, it thrummed beneath me loud enough for me to feel it in my innards. It was the kind of showy, idiotic sound that always annoyed me when I was in traffic trying to get to work in the morning. So why did I suddenly find it so exhilarating? “Have you ever gone from one to two hundred in under four seconds?” I stared at the man in absolute horror. We were in a parking lot in the middle of the city. Where on earth was he proposing to be able to hit two hundred miles per hour? “Griffin,” I managed, my heart pounding, “You said you were taking me to dinner, not that you were going to kill me.” He chuckled – an absurd sound considering what he was contemplating. “Trust me, Sadie. I’m not going to harm a hair on that pretty head of yours.” Somehow, I wasn’t comforted. When the man switched gears and the tires squealed, my heart leaped into my throat and it took everything I had not to show my apprehension. Griffin executed a U-turn that left black tire tracks in the center of the parking lot before flooring the gas petal – out into a busy intersection. I covered my mouth with a hand, swallowing my gasp as we narrowly avoided colliding with two other cars. Griffin swerved and I clutched at the door handle for dear life as he continued to accelerate, passing cars both on the left and the right. He had absolutely lost his mind. Somehow, I tore my eyes from the road before us to look at the madman next to me, and to my utter shock, he was smiling. The first time I had ever seen him smile. It was a wide, genuine grin that took my breath away – or, at least, what little breath I had left knowing that I was about to be enveloped in a fiery ball of death. When he smiled, he looked like a completely different person. All that obtrusive bad-assery faded away, and all at once, he was just a man. A man who hadn’t quite hit thirty and was enjoying one of the many thrills life handed him. Maybe his enthusiasm was contagious. Maybe I’d left my common sense back at the office, or maybe for a moment I had an out of body experience – but his excitement suddenly triggered my own. I found my heart thudding against my ribs for reasons that had nothing to do with fear. As I watched the speedometer creep up from ninety to one hundred and beyond, I felt a rush of exhilaration. I suddenly wanted to roll down the window and let the wind whip through my hair – to feel the acceleration as well as hear it. It was so totally unlike me that I should have immediately recognized how dangerous the feeling was – but I was much too caught up in the moment. We were on a public road, and the speed limit was

probably around forty-five – but Griffin didn’t care. The speedometer’s meter crept further and further upwards until outside activity was a blur and I could hardly breathe. As excited as he was, however, the man was also very focused. He switched gears effortlessly, and his eyes never left the road. We missed other vehicles by scant inches, and yet he never even flinched. But our luck couldn’t hold forever. We were headed towards a major intersection, and it was close to rush hour. I watched as the light changed, almost as if in slow motion – and suddenly our one hundred eighty miles per hour speed went from amazing to completely reckless. I gripped the dashboard, my breath stolen from me as the light flashed red less than eighty yards in front of us. At that point, I didn’t even have the air to scream. I expected us to blast through the light and then get ripped to shreds by the ensuing traffic – but, fortunately for my overactive imagination, none of that happened. Instead, Griffin hit the brakes and we skidded to stop within five car lengths, just a hairsbreadth from going over the line. I was so shocked that for a moment, I couldn’t comprehend what had happened. The light for the cross lane changed, traffic passed in front of us, and I realized that Griffin had risked my life to show off. I wanted to yell at him – to insist that he turn his ridiculous car around and take me back to the office – but I couldn’t. My blood still ran hot from the thrill I’d just experienced, and damned if it didn’t feel…good. The most excitement I’d had up until that point in my life was a school graduation or a work party. I wasn’t the thrill-seeking type. I scoffed at sky-diving, didn’t do clubbing, and the furthest I’d even ventured away on vacation was the Bahamas. That little one-mile jaunt had been the most thrilling thing to happen to me in my twenty-six years. I opened my mouth, shut it, and opened it again, trying to remember how to form words. Luckily for me, Griffin filled the silence. “Stops on a dime. The perfect machine with the perfect engine.” He was talking about the car, I knew, but he was looking at me, and my cheeks flushed. “You could have killed us.” I found my words, and, to my embarrassment, my voice trembled slightly. I uncurled my fingers from their death grip around the door handle and ran a hand through my hair. “We could have been pulled over.” “I doubt the cops would have been able to keep up.” Griffin’s reply was seamlessly cocky, and I rolled my eyes.

But I was unable to help the way my mouth kicked up at the corners in a smile of unbridled amusement. He was a reckless, under-educated daredevil…and far too appealing for his own good. “I’m not going to have to clean up the seat after you, am I?” The cheeky bastard winked at me and, incredulously, my smile stayed in place. “I’m very in control of my bodily functions, thank you very much.” My reply made him chuckle, and, as the light turned green, we accelerated again – though this time much more slowly. “What a shame.” The rest of the trip was much less eventful. Webb managed to stay just above the speed limit, and we didn’t play chicken with any more cars. However, when we reached the edge of the city, he just kept going, and my suspicious were triggered. I gazed out the window to see the setting sun in the distance, squinting to read a sign that signaled twenty miles to the coast. I didn’t usually visit the beach, and anyway, with the end of summer quickly approaching, it was getting a little too chilly. But, that was beside the point. “Where are we going?” Griffin’s smirk returned. “Isn’t it obvious? I’m taking you to a warehouse in the middle of nowhere to torture you.” I inhaled sharply, glaring at him. It was funny, when he mentioned torture, I didn’t exactly picture pain. Instead, I imagined the man stringing me up from the ceiling of some ramshackle room and stripping me naked…before having his way with me. “That’s…” I swallowed thickly. “That’s not funny. You don’t exactly have the best track record with women.” Griffin snorted, running a hand over the stubble on his chin as he effortlessly switched lanes. “I’ve never laid a hand on a woman in my life…unless she wanted.” “Oh, so it’s voluntary torture.” I quipped dryly. “I’ll be sure to put that in the article.” “Don’t forget to add the part where you wet your panties over my driving.” My cheeks went scarlet. Christ, this man had a mouth on him – he seemed to care little what people thought of him – an uncommon trait in someone always in the limelight. At any rate, he didn’t care what I thought of him. “I’ve heard about your charm, but you keep surprising me, Mr. Webb.” I injected as much poise as I could into my tone. It helped me to ignore the fact that even if his driving hadn’t aroused me, his words certainly had. “It’s Griffin,” He growled in return, his voice dangerous enough to make me shiver. “And you can take that stick out of your ass, Sadie. I brought you out here to relax.” I flinched, affronted. “And where is here? I have no idea where we’re going. I was trying to get to bed at a reasonable hour tonight.”

“And you will.” He returned, his voice suddenly almost soothing as he glanced over at me. “You’ll get your interview and I’ll get you home safe and sound. So just pipe down and enjoy the ride.” If he were any other man in the universe, I would have slapped him silly. But he was Griffin Webb. And it was obvious that I was way out of my league. The rest of the trip was made in uneventful silence, and I took the opportunity to try and enjoy the luxury of Griffin’s car. That, and admire the man himself. He appeared completely at ease in the driver’s seat of such a powerful vehicle – but that was probably because he was pretty powerful himself. I’d read somewhere that afternoon that the fastest punch in the martial arts world clocked in at forty-three point three miles per hour. Griffin’s strikes were estimated to fall somewhere between thirty-five and forty. And he had won half of his fights by knockout. Slightly transfixed, I stared at the bulge of his biceps beneath the dress shirt he wore. How easily, I wondered, could he lift me? How easily could he pin me against a wall and… “I hope you’re hungry.” I was snapped out of my trance by Griffin’s gruff statement and my eyes snapped up to his. His smile was a little too knowing for my tastes, and I quickly turned to let myself out of the car. And stopped dead. I’d hardly noticed where we were driving, but once my heels touched the pavement, I realized that we were right on the edge of the beach. Beneath the fading sky, the waves rolled in on the sand, and I was struck by the ethereal beauty of the place in the dying light. As I stood to take it all in, however, Griffin interjected on my reverie. “Wanna take a swim?” I shot him an imperious look that only made him shake his head before he gestured back away from the parking lot. When I saw the low, gleaming white stucco building with its black roof, my heart skipped a few beats. “Eireen’s.” It was one of the most popular restaurants in the region– just opened last year and already the waiting list was two years long to get into the place. Celebrities from all over the country dined here – but the one time I’d attempted to call ahead, they’d merely informed me that they were booked for the foreseeable future. Apparently, that wasn’t a problem when you were an internationally recognized MMA superstar. “Wait, don’t tell me.” Griffin held out his large hands, staying any further comments on my part. “Check my ego at the door, right?”

I blinked, my mouth snapping shut before I scowled. What else was there to say? It would be pretty hard for me to get my interview if the man got arrested for brawling in a high-class restaurant. “Just try to behave.” I finally snapped, crossing my arms over my chest. He smirked, giving me a small, mocking bow. “After you.” Jesus Christ, he was insufferable. ...So why was I hiding a smile? Eireen’s lived up to expectations. The establishment was a single floor, with the front wall made of one long pane of floor-to-ceiling windows to provide a wonderful view of the ocean beyond. Low candlelight lit tables covered in white cloths, and a live band played jazz in a corner. The place was absolutely packed – I could see why it was hard to get a reservation. There were several people waiting for tables when we entered. Griffin, however, was having none of that. He swaggered over to the hostess’ stand to present himself and the young woman there flushed three different shades of red as he whispered in her ear. Within minutes, we were led to a secluded rear portion of the restaurant that was divided into six private rooms. To my surprise, the hostess directed us into one of them. It might have been charming. The eight-foot by eight-foot space was just big enough for an intimate booth, a wine stand, and a few pieces of art decorating the walls. However, the moment the hostess left me along with Griffin, I realized that the space was much, much too small. My palms were suddenly damp, and I swallowed thickly as the man’s rich scent swirled around me. The curtain swung shut behind the hostess with loud finality and I turned to face my cover – my salvation – And the man that could very well be my undoing.


She was uncomfortable, and I didn’t plan on making things easy for her. Of course, she expected me to sit across from her, but the moment she slid into one side of the booth, I joined her there. I wasn’t going to let little Sadie Warner run away from me. Her face reddened as she sized me up, anxiety rolling off of her in waves. The suit that she’d changed into showed a good bit more skin than the dress she’d worn that afternoon and the color carried all the way down to the V of her tits. There were little freckles there too, I noticed, and I ached to taste them. It was a nice little navy number – her favorite color must be blue – and I took a moment to admire her in it, knowing she’d be getting hot under the collar. It got me hard watching her try and fight it – trying to stay away. But, I’d be a gentleman for the time being. I had promised her an interview, hadn’t I? So, she’d get her interview – among other things. “Didn’t you have some questions to ask me?” The scent of peaches still emanated from her, and like the lush, sweet fruit, I craved her. I wanted to devour her. “Y-yes.” She scooted as far away from me as she could on the seat before digging around in her bag. Within a few seconds, she pulled out a tablet and powered it on. I could see her troubled reflection in the glowing screen as she scrolled through a few lines of text. “Here we go.” Before she could start, a kid that looked to be in his early twenties popped his head in and introduced himself as our waiter. He also placed a bottle of Dom Perignon on the table in a bucket of ice and produced two glasses, which he began to fill. “Oh, no. No.” Sadie raised a slender hand to try and cover the mouth of her glass. “I won’t be drinking.” I frowned in disapproval, reaching out to snatch the glass from beneath her hand. “Yes, you will.” I presented it to the confused looking waiter, and at my intense stare, he quickly filled it before making a hasty retreat. When I made to hand it back to Sadie, she scowled at me. “I’m not drinking. I have work tomorrow.” “I have to train.” I took a swig from my own glass. I preferred a good whiskey, but the sparkly was

for her sake. “One or two glasses won’t kill you. Besides, you seem a little tense.” Understatement of the century. Her shoulders looked tighter than my back after my first injury. She merely glared at me, those gorgeous brown eyes blazing defiance. Without even looking at her glass of champagne, she lowered her gaze to her tablet again, before clearing her throat. “What, in your opinion, is the hardest thing about participating in MMA?” I arched a brow at her question. I didn’t think there was anything particularly hard about it – trying not to kill people when I hit them, maybe. The funny thing was: out of all the interviews I’d given, I didn’t ever recall being asked that question. ‘Trying not to hurt anyone too badly.” I shrugged, watching with no small amount of interest as she took notes on the tablet. “Not getting fucked up. Though that part less and less these days.” Her eyes darted to mine, and I found genuine curiosity there. “What do you mean?” I shrugged. “The longer you fight, the more ways you find to defend yourself. I might come out of matches with a bloody nose or something like that, but I can’t remember the last time I had a serious injury.” Her brows shot towards her hairline. “What, no broken bones? No bruised ribs?” I chuckled. “Don’t sound so enthusiastic.” God, it was easy to make her blush. She must be even more innocent than I thought. Most women I associated with would have their lips wrapped around my dick by this point. But, of course, prim little Sadie was here with a motivation that had nothing to do with naked bodies. Which, all at once, interested me more than it should. “I’m not enthusiastic. Just curious as to how someone who fights for a living comes out unscathed.” “If ‘unscathed’ means ‘not fucked up,’ then that’s an easy question to answer: be good at what you do.” I wasn’t particularly humble about my profession. Why would I be? I worked hard to get where I was. “And how does one ‘get good’ at beating the crap out of someone else?” She was barely three questions in and I was already tired of talking about myself. I talked about me all the goddamn time – so much that it had all but become a part of my public image. “How does one get to write a story about an MMA fighter?” I returned, nodding when the waiter poked his head in to take our order.

Sadie just stared at me as I proceeded to order for both of us. I’d been to Eireen’s a handful of times and I knew what I liked. That, and I was tired of watching underweight women order salads when they could make a damn salad at home. I ordered the prime rib for two, pleased by the gleam of hunger that lit in Sadie’s eye. After the waiter left, however, she merely frowned at me. “What if I don’t eat red meat?”

I tossed back what remained of my champagne before pouring another glass. She was bluffing, but it was cute enough that I let it go. “Then you’ll learn.” I enjoyed seeing the look of shock on her face every time I told her what to do. I wondered if anyone had ever really ordered her around. Sure, she probably listened to her boss like the little goodie-twoshoes she was, but had a man ever demanded for her to bend over and spread? I relished the thought. “Has anyone ever told you what an asshole you are?” I snorted in amusement. “Every damn day. You still didn’t answer my question.” She started, her lovely eyes darting around as she tried to recall what I was talking about. “What question?” “How did you get your job?” I repeated, gesturing towards her with my champagne glass. Sadie’s lovely eyes narrowed in suspicion. “I thought I was supposed to be interviewing you.” She shot, any trace of relaxation she might have been feeling melting away defensively. “You are.” I was going to need to get her to drink if she was going to loosen up at all. I wasn’t out to get her drunk – just to get her away from thinking that I was some kind of serial killer. “We’re trading off. You ask me a question, I ask you a question.” Her eyes immediately widened in alarm. “That wasn’t part of the deal!” I loved the way her lower lip trembled when she got nervous. I wanted to bite it –to tug at it and kiss it before moving onto other, more sensitive parts of her. “It is now. Take it or leave it.” Crossing her arms over those delicious tits, she glared at me with enough fire to make my cock press against the zipper of my slacks. Then, she did something crazy. Her gaze never leaving mine, the blonde woman reached out to take her full champagne glass – and down the entire thing in one swallow. When she placed it back on the table, her expression was one of grim determination. “Fine.” I had to admit, I was surprised. She wanted to meet me on my own terms. She had balls.

I found, quite suddenly, that I didn’t just want Sadie Warner. I liked her. That said, she was definitely a lot more fun when she wasn’t uptight. It took about two glasses of champagne, but the tension in Sadie’s shoulders finally began to loosen. And, in spite of her earlier reserve, she started to open up. Obviously, she wasn’t too thrilled with my suggestion of a question for a question, so the first few rounds were stiff. I tried to ease her in with all the small talk that I usually hated. Why, I wondered, were women so insistent upon telling me their favorite color? Their favorite brand name? Their favorite chocolate? As if I gave a fuck about any of those things. Usually, at least. With Sadie, I found myself wondering. For once, I wasn’t faced with a woman that wanted to talk my ear off about frivolous bullshit. When we started speaking, she was so clammed up that she stuck to one-sentence answers. She didn’t have a favorite color, it turned out. She didn’t splurge on brand names most of the time and she didn’t even like chocolate. By that second glass of champagne, however, she was getting into the groove. Where she’d been reading the questions she asked me carefully from the tablet originally, by the time the appetizers came, she was moving off script, taking notes less and less often. To my amusement, she continued to surprise me. No cookie cutter questions for little Miss Sadie. No – she wanted to know the answers to things I’d hardly thought about – information I had to think up on the spot. “So…” Her cheeks were flushed with drink, her blonde hair curling sexily around that captivating face of hers. I watched, transfixed, as she popped a black olive into her mouth, her the fingers of her opposite hand drumming against the table. “What would you be if you weren’t an MMA competitor?” I arched a brow. I had never really thought about being anything else. Not since Riley had all but saved my life. Ever since then, every part of me had gone towards my training – towards being stronger. But there was one thing I thought about, sometimes. When I wasn’t hell bent on training, drinking, or fucking away my messed up history, I thought that maybe I’d like to keep other kids from getting fucked up the way I did. “I dunno. Maybe a cop?” I thought her eyes might pop out of her head. She stared at me, obviously shocked, as I chewed on an olive.

“A cop?” Why the hell was she so surprised? “Don’t you hate cops?” I gave her a long look. “Why would I hate cops?” “Because you’re always in trouble with them!” She exclaimed, as if the answer should be obvious. “I’m pretty sure they know you by what bars you frequent by this point.” I took another swig of champagne. Here was another arena in where Sadie was most definitely different. She didn’t purr, stroke my ego and indulge in my reckless vibe. No, she told me what a troublemaker I was. How I should reform myself. It was interesting as hell. “If I get into a fight, Sadie, and certain phone calls are made, the cops come.” I shrugged, taking the opportunity to rest an arm on the back of the seat – around her shoulders. “They’re just doing their job. Of course, it fucking sucks, but if no one stepped in to stop people from killing each other, where would we be?” She blinked, merely staring up at me – before sipping at her third glass of champagne delicately. “I don’t understand you.” She finally declared, shaking her head slowly. “You give off very mixed signals, Griffin.” “How so?” I was enjoying this night more and more by the minute. When was the last time a woman had challenged me – had really caught me off guard and garnered my interest? A fucking age, that’s how long. “You’re a thug. A bruiser, bad boy, thrill-seeker.” I nodded at her summary. That much was all true. “But you want to be a cop…so you can…help people?” I frowned. “Well, now you’re just making me sound like a pussy.” To my surprise, a low, sexy laugh escaped her as her eyes gleamed in the candlelight. “Please. No one in their right mind would ever question your masculinity.” At that particular statement, heated blood pulsed through my veins and I swallowed the sudden hunger clawing to escape me. She had no idea how badly she was asking for it. By simple virtue of just being…her. Sadie Warner was a lot of things I hadn’t encountered in a woman in a long fucking time. She was smart. Sure, it seemed to lend her a bit of a superiority complex when she was sober, but the nervous

way she acted around me gave her away. She was gorgeous – in a very natural way that had nothing to do with surgeries, fake tits or pounds of makeup. And, shockingly enough, when she let loose, she could be funny as hell. “Is that a compliment?” I growled, teasing her – even further aroused when she licked her lips anxiously in reply, her eyes darting away. “Take it as whatever you want.” What I wanted to take was all that goddamned sass out of her mouth. Thankfully for her, before I could get started, the food finally arrived. I had a pleasant buzz going – enough to have me starving, and as the waiter set the immense, gorgeous slab of medium-rare meat in front of us, the woman beside me moaned. Actually moaned. The low, hot-as-hell sound went straight to my cock, which immediately stood at attention once more. However, I quickly figured out that it wasn’t anything I had done that had caused that sound. At least, not directly. Sadie was staring at the steak with such intensity that, for a moment, I was almost jealous of the damn thing. “Medium rare?” She asked, almost as if on the edge of coming, and I swallowed thickly. “Why the hell would I burn such a gorgeous piece of meat?” Despite having told me that she wasn’t going to eat, Sadie went for the steak before I did. I admired the way she dug into it – only starting to eat after I watched her for almost a full minute. Now that was something I liked to see. A girl with a good appetite. Sadie was a slight little thing, but apparently, not for lack of trying. “Here.” I managed to stave her off for long enough to add a bit of Worcestershire sauce along with a dab of Grey Poupon mustard - something the owner of the restaurant had taught me. “Try that.” She didn’t need to be told twice. Sadie took the bite of steak off the end of my fork with relish. As she chewed, her eyes slid closed and an expression of pure bliss appeared on her face. “Oh my God…that’s amazing.” Pretty much the same reaction I had the first time I tried it – though I was pretty sure I didn’t look so goddamn sexy. “Isn’t it?”

“Can I have another bite?” I was quick to oblige. In all honesty, I just wanted to see her make that face again. And she didn’t disappoint. At some point or the other, the interview was forgotten. I ordered a second bottle of champagne and Sadie did her half of the prime rib justice. I encouraged her to look at the desert menu as I thought about what I might want to ask her now that she was answering my questions a little more readily. “So, what is it that you don’t like about me?” Seemed as good a question to ask as any, seeing as how my natural charms obviously didn’t make me any better in her eyes. Sadie merely smirked at me. She was smirking now. That had to be a good sign. “You’re a bad boy, Griffin. And I don’t do bad guys.” I chuckled lowly. “As in, literally, you don’t screw them?” She looked away for a moment, her cheeks pink. “No. I meant that I just don’t see the appeal in pursuing men who only break hearts. In idolizing them. I mean,’ she tossed her hand casually in my direction. “Sure you’re attractive.” Her brown eyes very suddenly locked with mine, and in her innocent, sweet gaze I saw a hunger that took my breath away. “Very attractive. But that doesn’t excuse your…your…” She trailed off, her ample vocabulary obviously having failed her. “My what?” I leaned in close to her – so close that I could feel the heat her body produced and see each tiny freckle that dotted her throat. “Your…” She exhaled a slow breath, her eyes searching mine. “…delinquency.” I couldn’t take it anymore. That smart little mouth of hers was driving me fucking insane. My fingers tunneled through her gorgeous blonde waves and I crushed my lips against hers. We’d just finished eating a steak for God’s sake. How the hell did she taste so sweet? Sadie didn’t shove me away. I expected a slap, a gasp – anything but what actually happened. She wrapped those slender, milky arms of hers around me and pulled me close, a soft moan escaping her. She wanted it just as badly as I did – which stole any pretense of gentleness I might have had. Immediately, my grip on her scalp was almost harsh – I was tugging at her hair, urging her closer as my tongue cleaved its way into her mouth to taste her deeper. To my continued surprise, Sadie only arched that lithe body of hers against me – flush enough so that I could feel every curve that suit of hers was hiding. True, it was a bit better than the dress she’d worn that afternoon, but not by much.

Though that mattered little now. After all, I was aiming to get at the soft skin beneath. For a good-little-girl, she kissed like a woman possessed. Her fingers curled into my shoulders and her tongue slid against mine almost aggressively. I bit and sucked at her lower lip so she shuddered in my arms and I could feel her body heating up against me. Christ, I’d thought about this all day – and it was even better than I had imagined. With a low growl, I hauled her into my lap, enjoying the small sound of surprise she uttered against my mouth. For the first time, my hands curled into that pert little ass of hers and I groaned as her skirt rode up. It didn’t take long before her thighs were bare beneath my fingers. They were soft and satiny – a color I knew would bruise under harsh treatment. The question was, how harsh? My hands curled firmly into her thighs, and then even harder, as I jerked her upward, forcing her to straddle my lap as I sucked on her tongue. Not a word of protest left her. Instead, the little minx moaned and squirmed, butting the heat between her legs against me with all the pent up want of a woman starved. Like I was going to deny that? Reaching between her legs, I found that her underwear was thin and lacy – and that they were already drenched. “Fuck.” At the hushed word, Sadie’s breath hitched and she pressed her hot wetness even more firmly against my palm. Her eyes met mine and she flushed bright red, looking away. But she didn’t try to take back her dignity. No – even if she wasn’t looking at me, her soaking pussy rubbed eagerly against my hand. I glanced at the thick curtain that was all that separated us from the busy restaurant beyond. Though we hadn’t ordered dessert yet, the waiter could still be back at any moment – hell, anyone could stumble in. But I hardly cared. Delicious little Sadie Warner was all but giving herself to me – and I would be a fucking fool not to answer the call. Without hesitation, I yanked the thin lace of her panties aside and found her gushing for me. She gasped, immediately trying to squirm away until I locked an arm around her waist to hold her in place. “Shhhh.” I ordered lowly, as I stroked the soft, slick folds between her legs. “You gotta be quiet, babe.” She whimpered, her lips parting as her fingers threaded through my hair and loosened it from where I’d tied it back. “Griffin…” Her voice sounded almost pained as I slipped two fingers into her wet heat. Jesus, she was tight – almost virginal. When I began pumping my fingers in and out of her clenching passageway, she buried her face in my shoulder and moaned lowly, her hips thrusting in time with my hand.

She was letting me finger her in a public fucking place – something I had never expected from Miss prim and proper – no matter how much she drank. “That’s it…” I growled against the top of her head, obsessed with how her hips bucked against my hand hungrily. “Ride my fingers, honey. Like that…” A low hiss of pleasure escaped her and I felt her inner muscles clench around my hand as she bit down on my neck. Mind you, she didn’t bite hard but it was enough to send turn every coherent thought I might have had into pure lust. Sadie yelped as I lifted her from my lap to set on her own shaky legs just next to the booth. While she was standing there, she seemed to regain some of the sense that had left her while my fingers were inside her. Her eyes widened as I shoved the remainder of our food from the table to the floor in a clatter of china wear and mess. “Griffin! What are you doing?” Before she could protest any further, I yanked her back to me, setting her on the table before me as my mouth found hers again. Now…. now that the space had been cleared, I could really get to work.


I must have lost my mind. That was the only reason that I’d be sitting on top of the table we’d just eaten from and letting Griffin Webb kiss me utterly breathless. Actually, considering that his hands had just been down my underwear, that was a pretty mild infraction of the rules. I wasn’t drunk – anyway, not near drunk enough to allow this, but the thing was: I couldn’t stop it. I couldn’t bring myself to form the word no or shove him off me. Griffin had ignited a hunger in me I hadn’t even known existed – and I found that I suddenly needed him desperately. However he wanted to have me. As his tongue thrust boldly into my mouth, the man ripped my jacket from my shoulder to toss onto the booth seat next to him. Next came my shirt buttons – which weren’t undone so much as popped so they pinged all over the small space. I inhaled sharply, glancing in fear at the curtain that separated us from the rest of the restaurant. “Griffin…someone could come…” My body jerked as he yanked my bra down to expose the globes of my bare breasts and my skin burned. “Anyone could see us!” It was all I could think to say, considering that my body couldn’t decide whether it wanted him to stop or keep going. “Someone is going to come,” He growled lowly against my ear as he took my breasts in his large, calloused hands to knead them purposefully. “You, little Sadie. You’re going to come for me. And if anyone wants to watch, they’re fucking welcome.” His words sent a streak of heat jolting down between my legs and, if possible, I only got wetter. I gasped as Griffin forced me flat onto my back onto the table, my breasts out in the open for all to see. As the martial artist plucked at one of my nipples, I squirmed, attempting to escape his grip. However, Griffin only shoved a knee between my legs to force them open before his body came between them. My skirt hiked up to the point of no return, bunching around my waist, and the man’s green eyes stared down at me with a ravenousness that made my womb clench almost painfully. When his body pressed against mine, I could feel the jut of his cock through his slacks and it made me shudder. Everything was obviously in proportion there – Griffin was huge. And I had no doubt that I was going to find out exactly how huge in short order. He jacked his hips against mine, teasing me with the bulge of his erection as he leaned over, taking each of my breasts in a firm grip that plumped my nipples upward. By this point, they were hard little nubs of desire – and Griffin took full advantage. He put the tip of a breast into his mouth to lick and

suck until I was biting my lip against the moans that threatened. I could still hear the low strains of jazz music playing from the restaurant beyond the curtain, reminding me that the man had me all but naked in a very public place. When he bit sharply at my nipple, a short cry escaped me. To my shock, Griffin withdrew to smack my breast with just enough pressure to sting, making me jump. “Hush.” He growled in a way that was all at once arousing and menacing. “Do you want someone to hear?” With that, he resumed his earlier ministrations, his tongue circling my opposite nipple until I swear the juices between my legs were soaking the tablecloth beneath me. It had never been like this – and not only the ‘carnal acts in so obvious a public place’ part. The entire experience was surreal – the pleasure so sharp it was almost painful. For the first time in my life, I had relinquished all control. And it was amazing. My fingers delved into the silky length of Griffin’s hair once more as he finally relinquished my breasts to start kissing his way down my bare torso. Of course, a man as violent as him couldn’t just kiss. He bit, he nipped, and he licked over my skin until there were almost as many red marks as freckles. When his tongue delved into my belly button, I gasped, arching off the table. He took the moment of distraction as an opportunity to shove my skirt even further up my body, before all but tearing my panties away. When the sound of ripping lace reached my ears, I sat up on my elbows abruptly, my eyes wide in shock. “Griffin, no!” He responded to my entreaty with a sharp smack against my thigh. The burning pain made me catch my breath as he stared down at me, his gaze challenging. “’Griffin no’ what?” He hissed, jerking my hips towards him. “Don’t spank me like the naughty little girl I am?” He smacked me again, and this time, I bit back a cry. “Don’t touch my wet, hot little pussy?” He cupped the heat between my legs brusquely and my head fell back as I choked out a soft moan. His thumb found the swollen, engorged bead of my clitoris and began to rub it in drugging, slow circles that had me all but thrashing on the table, all my propriety forgotten. “Don’t make me come, Griffin?” The words were growled hotly in my ear as I tried everything I could think of to prevent myself from screaming. “If you don’t want it, tell me so, Sadie.” As his thumb continued to torture my clit, his index and middle fingers slid into my slick haven to the knuckles. “Say ‘don’t make me come, Griffin.’’” He nipped at my neck sharply as his fingers began to thrust into me – high, hard and hitting a spot that felt impossibly good. “I’m listening.” I could no more have said those words than spontaneously metamorphosed into a butterfly. As he

exploited that spot within me ruthlessly, my hips arched into his motions of their own accord and my orgasm crashed over me with such force that it left me gasping for air. I writhed in the man’s grip, riding out the pleasure until I sagged onto the table, my chest heaving with my exertions. Griffin gazed down at me with an expression of smug satisfaction on his face that made me want to slap him – at least, I would have wanted to if I hadn’t been recovering from the most glorious orgasm of my entire life. “Thought not.” Griffin’s smug statement made me moan lowly as his fingers finally slipped from me. He raised one to that decadent mouth of his, sucking it clean lasciviously, and I thought I might actually pass out. But what came next was worse. He touched his middle finger, still wet with my dew, to one of my nipples, thoroughly covering it in a thin sheen of moisture. Then, he leaned down to suck it clean, making my entire body quiver. “Mmm…Sweet Sadie.” When he straightened, it was to undo his belt, his eyes burning into me the entire time. “Sweet, sweet Sadie.” I gasped as he drew his erection from his pants – long, thick and dark red in arousal. He was going to rip me in half. I’d never been with anyone that could even begin to compare. However, I didn’t protest when he reached down to palm my breasts, his opposite hand rubbing his cock against me lewdly through my drenched panties. “You’re mine.” With his fingers, he jerked aside the remains of my panties and I felt the blunt, thick head of his erection before he pushed it into me. My back arched reflexively as he took hold of my hips, pulling me down onto his cock inch by glorious inch. I was panting – I was sweating – and I’d never been so divinely, gloriously filled in my entire life. I reached up to press a hand against his chest - though I didn’t know if it was to push him away or bring him closer. He pressed up inside me until I swore I could feel him in the back of my throat, and I could feel myself clenching tightly around him. When he was finally completely inside me, he took my wrist, raising my hand to put on his shoulder as he groaned through clenched teeth. “Fuck, that’s good.” He took hold of my hips once more and withdrew before thrusting in again – so deeply that a soft cry escaped me. All at once, Griffin hugged me to him in a tight embrace, pressing my mouth against his shoulder to muffle the sounds I made. “Take it.” He growled, pressing his hips against mine as I clawed at his back. The rhythm that he set was quick and brutal – the table biting into my hips every time he thrust into me and making me glad that my face was buried in his shoulder. The gesture muffled my moans and cries as he pounded into me, the table making sharp sounds every time he shoved against it. I was sure that

his back was red and raw with the way I clung to him – his shoulder throbbing after I gnawed it in my desperation to remain quiet. It was intense, it was carnal, and it was more erotic than I could ever have imagined. Despite the fact that I had just come, Griffin’s precise, strong strokes were quickly taking me there again. I felt the coil low in my abdomen winding tighter and tighter until his hands finally gripped my behind almost bruisingly and growled a low order into my ear. “Come again for me, baby girl. Do it now.” I toppled helplessly over the precipice, my entire body quivering as my second orgasm of the evening took me. My inner muscles clenched down hungrily on Griffin and he thrust into me twice more before a strangled groan escaped him and I felt him pumping his seed into me in hot, delicious spurts. The aftermath of our sticky, secret encounter was oddly quiet. I was trying to catch my breath, and Griffin’s forehead was pressed against mine, our position oddly intimate. For about two minutes, I was enveloped in blissful, post-orgasmic haze, the likes of which I’d never known. Griffin had fulfilled every dark fantasy I’d had about him in the twelve hours in which I’d been assigned to his article – and then some. He was powerful, dominating, and sexy as hell. And he’d just screwed me literally senseless. From beyond the curtain came the sharp sound of glasses clinking – and that managed to startle me back to the present. I straightened slightly, my eyes widening as I realized what we’d just done. What I’d just done. I let Griffin fuck me on the table of one of the most expensive restaurants in town, with nothing but a curtain separating us from the rest of the world. And worse – I’d become exactly what I’d sworn to myself that I wouldn’t be: just another one of his conquests. Sucking in a breath, I pushed lamely at his shoulders as I cleared my throat. “I…I have to get up.” Despite the fact that all of my screams had been muffled, my throat was still hoarse. And the fact seemed to please him. Griffin raised his head and pecked my lips once more before I could stop him before moving away from me. The motion separated our bodies and I gasped at the sudden emptiness that ensued. For a split second, I almost begged him to return and fill me again – but then I realized exactly how exposed I was. Griffin was still staring at my bare breasts – my exposed nether regions…my face flaming, I immediately slid from the table to shove my skirt down. There was no way I could salvage the popped buttons of my shirt, so I just tugged my bra back up before folding it together and reaching

for my suit jacket. I swallowed thickly as I slid it on, feeling Griffin’s heated gaze on me the entire time. Goddamn it. I was supposed to have been professional – this story could have made my career. Instead, I’d gone and gotten a few glasses of champagne into me – my head was still spinning – and let all my inhibitions fly out of the window. So why didn’t I feel guiltier? I should have rushed out of the restaurant with my tail between my legs – but instead said legs only quivered and I relished in the sore, well-used feeling between them. “Hey.” I glanced up to see Griffin looking down at me, a brow arched as he tucked in his shirt. Rather than being condescending, however, his gaze seemed almost…concerned. “You alright?” He held out a hand to help me up and I hesitated only a moment before taking it. To my surprise, he pulled me right into his embrace, his mouth finding mine once more. Despite myself, I melted against him as his mouth dominated mine. When he took my lower lip between his teeth to suck, his hands curling into my behind, a soft moan escaped me, and, incredibly, I found myself starting to get aroused again. That heat, however, was doused the moment our waiter stuck his head through the curtain. The young man took one look at us – me with my mussed clothes, disheveled hair, and swollen lips, and Griffin looking like the cat that ate the canary – as well as the mess Griffin had made on the floor – and his face went bright red. He disappeared without a word. I might have turned almost as dark as him- and Griffin had the nerve to chuckle. That dark, sexy laugh of his that, somehow, made me want him all over again. “Maybe we should get out of here.” He suggested, taking my hand possessively to tug me towards the curtain. My eyes widened as I tried to yank my fingers from his grip. “Looking like this? Could we be any more obvious?” Instead of arguing with me, Griffin merely jerked me to him, cupping my chin firmly to plant another mind-blowing kiss on my mouth, melting away all of my reservations. “Let’s go, Sadie.” This time, his words booked no argument – and I let him pull me back into the restaurant. All the while wondering: what the hell had I gotten myself into?


I tried not to grope her on our way out of the restaurant. After all, I wasn’t a complete animal, and she was obviously worked up enough already. Fuck. Just the memory of how tight she squeezed my cock – the way she moaned, scratched, and squirmed as I fucked her…it was enough to make me hard again. Luckily enough, she was walking in front of me. By the time we reached the hostess’ stand, our skinny little waiter had, no doubt, shocked the shit out of everyone by telling them what we’d been up to behind our curtain. At that moment, I didn’t really want to cause a scene. I was too hell-bent on getting Sadie out of the restaurant and back to my place…where I could really make her mine. As the manager came over, I quickly handed him a handful of hundreds – more than enough to cover the bill and tip, as well as pay for anything I might have broken. “My bad.” I wasn’t feeling particularly chatty, and so, as soon as the shocked man took the money, I was tugging Sadie towards the door. “Griffin!” I loved the way she sounded so fucking scandalized by everything I did. She didn’t just giggle and go along with me, playing coy. I continued to shock her – and it showed on her face. Her sweet, sheltered, gorgeous face. “What was that?” I merely grinned at her, opening the door before I propelled her gently through it. “Tell you later.” I squeezed her ample ass suddenly and she gasped, eyeing me with a mixture of anger and arousal that had me biting back a moan. How the hell did she get to me so badly? But then, of course, the moment was ruined. The moment we got outside, at least five or six cameras went off, their flashes blinding us. “What the f-” My question was cut off by a bunch of reporters attempting to ram questions down my throat. My eyes adjusted quickly to the bright light and I scowled at the crowd that had formed. Who the hell told them where I was? I was prepared to shove through them to the fucking car and be done with it, but, next to me, Sadie froze, her eyes wide in horror. I could admit that she looked a mess – well-kissed and well-fucked, and I realized that I didn’t want

anyone else to see it but me. “Back off!” I barked to the reporters, bringing my arm around her to shield her from the cameras protectively. “No fucking pictures!” But there were too many of them. They were too rabid to listen to me. “Who’s this, Griffin? The newest flavor?” “What’s her name?” “How long have you been together?” Several more cameras flashed and I started to get pissed. Turning to glare at the crowd, I narrowed my gaze as my temper rose. “Last warning. Back the fuck up.” I might have been speaking to a brick wall. The fuckers wouldn’t take no for an answer – and one of the bastards got bold. He attempted to duck under my arm to get a good picture of Sadie. That was all it took for me to lose it. Whirling on the small man, I snatched his camera from him to fling to the ground. When I brought my foot down on it, glass splintered and cracked, and he yelled in outrage. But, that was nothing. Next I grabbed the man himself and planted my fist in the middle of his face. Bones cracked. Blood spurted – and the idiot went down like a stone. But the only thing that concerned me was Sadie’s shrill scream of horror. While the other reporters continued taking pictures frantically, I turned to see her staring at me as if she’d never seen me before in her life, her mouth a wide O of shock. And it wasn’t the kind of shock I liked to see. “Fuck,” I snarled, my temper still humming as I reached out to snatch her hand and drag her toward the car. Unlocking it, I all but shoved her in before shutting the door and going to the driver’s side. I needed a minute. Just one goddamn minute. Slamming my fists onto the top of the car, I exhaled slowly, trying to calm myself down. The reporters were hot on our heels so I didn’t have much time, but I couldn’t get into the car like this. She’d already seen enough of my classic Griffin charm for one night. After about a minute, I finally slid into the car just ahead of the reporters, and for a moment, I just sat there, clutching the steering wheel tightly. I didn’t look at Sadie, but I could feel her staring at me.

And it wasn’t with the awed, heated gaze that she had only half an hour earlier. She was terrified… and with good reason. Cursing under my breath, I started the car and backed out of the parking lot. As I made a U-turn to head back to the highway, Sadie turned away from me to stare out of the window. She didn’t say a word. And I knew I had fucked up royally.

The ride back to the city was silent as a graveyard. I didn’t even dare to turn the music on – besides, I doubted that metal would lighten the mood. I didn’t do well with silence, so about ten minutes in, I broke it. “Where do you live? I’ll take you home.” She stiffened next to me, still staring out the window. “Just take me back to the office. I’ll drive home myself.” I scowled. Now she was just being stubborn. “You’ve had a lot to drink.” “So have you.” She snapped back, turning to glare at me a moment before her expression softened somewhat…. turning back into fear. There was a long beat before she finally spoke again, telling me her address. She lived in a little complex of condos uptown, in the kind of neighborhood I never could have imagined visiting as a kid. Of course, I’d lived in a penthouse in midtown for years now, but I hadn’t forgotten what it was like to be poor. The anger – the pain. I hit people to get rid of that pain. Only…at the restaurant, I hadn’t hit that reporter for me. I’d hit him for Sadie. Because something about her made me want to protect her. When I pulled to a stop outside her duplex, she straightened, reaching for the door handle. But I couldn’t let her leave. Not like this. My fingers wrapped around her wrist in a firm grip that made her look at me, almost as if she was scared I might hit her. Fuck. “Sadie...I’m sorry.” I had to force the words out. Once upon a time, I told myself that I would never apologize for who I was or where I’d come from. But, I was apologizing now. “I messed up, Ok?”

For a moment, she just stared at me, and I couldn’t read her. I usually considered myself pretty good at figuring out what women wanted. But this had nothing to do with sex. This was something else entirely. Something completely beyond me. “Goodnight, Griffin.� And just like that, she pulled out of my grip and slid from the car. When the door slammed behind her, I flinched, watching her take the steps towards her front door two at a time. From their place on the steering wheel, my hands itched. I needed to hit something.


The moment I woke up the next morning, I remembered what happened the previous night and cursed, sitting up in bed. My body clock always got me up a seven a.m. sharp, and today was no different—as much as I would have liked to stay in bed all damn day. Fuck. Running a hand through my hair, I remembered the way I’d left her last night—her being Sadie Warner, the first woman in a long time to actually pique my interest. Yesterday, she’d been on my mind from the moment those decadent legs of hers had pranced into the gym. She was sweet, far sweeter than most of the women I hung out with. Initially, I thought that was why I wanted her. Last night, I had been proven wrong. Yes, I got what I wanted, Sadie’s legs around my waist while I fucked her, enjoying every moan and gasp of pleasure she uttered, but that wasn’t enough. Not nearly enough. With a groan, I rose and headed to the shower. Not that any of that mattered anymore. I fucked up royally. Where any other woman might have fallen all over herself at my show of masculine power, Sadie had been terrified. She was scared of me. I had to resist the urge to punch a hole in the expensive tile of the shower wall. How was it that I woke up frustrated two mornings in a row? I swore someone was fucking with me. Good thing I had a high tolerance for bullshit. I started the day as I did every one before it—shower and a protein shake. I needed to get to the gym and I had no desire to deal with the media, who I knew would be waiting for me. So, instead of taking my Jag, I slipped out the back entrance of the apartment building to jog the four miles to the gym. Luckily, before anyone realized I slipped away, I was halfway down the block and gone. Somehow, I hoped that the pre-workout would help take my mind off things, namely, the sexy fucking reporter who I’d spent the evening with. But by the time I got to the gym, my mind was still full of Sadie. And it didn’t help that she was all over the goddamn papers. The moment I walked into the gym, Ross was eying me warily. He always had the sense to be careful around me when it looked like I’d had a bad night. “How’s it hangin’, Griff?”

I merely grunted, too wrapped up in my own issues to reply. I had never really been the talking type— something countless women always gave me shit about. Passing Ross by, I grabbed a copy of the city paper from the rack in the gym’s entryway to scowl down at it sullenly. You’d think there would have been some emergency or tragedy they could put on the front page, but no. Of course, there I was in all my glory, standing over the reporter who’d gotten in Sadie’s face like I was the criminal. MMA Hothead Takes on Defenseless Reporter. Defenseless my ass. When I remembered the look on Sadie’s face when the guy tried to take a picture of her…I’d do it all over again if I could. “So, I take it last night didn’t go so well?” The kid had followed me and peered over my shoulder at the paper with a thin smile. “Lady didn’t light your fire, Griff?” You’d think the low growl I uttered might have been enough for him to get the hint but Ross was obviously feeling unusually annoying that day. “Or did she?” A slow smile spread across his face as he clapped me on the shoulder. “I’m pretty sure every guy in the gym noticed when those legs walked in. Did you at least manage to get them to spread just a tiny bit before the whole media fiasco?” I reacted without thinking. My fist found a handful of Ross’ shirt and slammed him against a nearby wall as a strange mix of irritation and fury coursed through me. The look on his face changed from amused to terrified in two seconds flat as I glared hotly down at him. “Don’t,” I managed from between clenched teeth, “talk about her like that. Fucking ever.” Ross nodded frantically, no doubt hoping that I wouldn’t crush him against the wall like a bug. Instead, I merely let him go to stalk off towards the locker room, still mad as hell. What the fuck was wrong with me? There was nothing strange about Ross, or any other fighter in the gym for that matter, wanting to discuss a lay. It was practically ritual, and I’d participated in it more times than I could count. Hell, I was the king. I’d had pussy from six different continents. Girls who couldn’t understand a word of English but still knew my name. But, somehow, hearing Ross talk about Sadie like she was just another piece of meat…it didn’t sit well with me. I had put her in that position, side by side with one of the world’s most infamous playboys. It wasn’t her fault reporters were trying to get up in her grill; if anything, her reaction said it all. She was fucking scared out of her mind. I changed in record time, the need to hit something almost overwhelming. Of course, when I came out of the locker room, Riley was waiting for me. And he didn’t look happy. Scratching the back of his head, he gave me a slow once over before speaking. “You look like shit,

Griffin.” Well, it was nice to know I looked as good as I felt. “Why you gotta mess with the kid? He’s just trying to make you feel better.” Groaning, I ran a hand through my still damp hair, wanting more than ever to go back to my apartment and shut out the world until this whole thing blew over. “I don’t want to talk about it.” Stalking past the man, I made my way to the closest of the two rings and made my way through the ropes to climb in. Turning to face Riley, I stuffed my mouthpiece past my lips—the best way to convey that I have absolutely shit to say. The big guy merely sighed, shaking his head as he grabbed the nearest pair of pads to climb into the ring with me. “You’re going to have to talk about it,” he insisted, raising his covered hands so that I could work on my strikes. In response to his demand, my arm shot out in a lightning fast punch that had him wincing before he continued. “She’s coming in a few hours to take some photos for that article of hers.” The news sent my punch wild and I almost ended up taking the top of Riley’s head off. He ducked with a curse before fixing me with a glare of his own. Riley was one of the only men on the planet I could count on to give me a beating when I deserved it. “Fucking Christ, Griff! What’s up with you today?” I couldn’t even answer him. I didn’t know what the hell was fucking wrong with me. Only that Sadie Warner had gotten under my skin something awful, and the idea of facing her again aroused me as much as it intimidated the hell out of me. As Riley proceeded to put me through my paces, I tried to keep my mind on my training, but it wasn’t the easiest task. My mind kept rewinding to the previous night, when I had all but dragged Sadie from that fancy restaurant, looking as freshly-fucked and gorgeous as hell, and the media leapt on her like dogs. It wasn’t as if I hadn’t ever stepped out with a woman after fucking her sideways before. The women I knew tended to like that kinky shit. They posed with their smeared lipstick and mussed clothing as if it were some kind of high-fashion fucking photo shoot. I honestly thought Sadie was going to faint on the spot, and seeing her like that triggered something in me. Hell if I knew what it was, but I wanted to protect her. I needed to protect her. She wasn’t just some huge-titted bimbo in a long line of woman out to kneel before me. She wasn’t a late night partier or some escort out to get whatever she could from a man before leaving him for a better one. She was just a goddamn gorgeous woman trying to do her job, and she didn’t need that fucked up by everything I got into on an almost-daily basis. The sentiment fueled the intensity of my workout, and I trained agility and strength with Riley for a good two hours until my blood was pumping and my pulse was up. By that time, the gym had filled,

and other fighters were going about their daily routines as well. As Riley had to devote part of his time to the up-and-comers, he left me to spar with some of the other members. With a warning for me to be gentle or he’d knock me flat on my ass. I didn’t think Riley had warned me to be careful with other fighters since I was fucking seventeen. To appease him, I threw myself into the task until around noon. It was a lot harder not to kill people than it looked, especially when pissed beyond all rational belief. I bloodied a few noses and handed out a shitload of bruises all around, but nothing more than my usual. Hitting things, as it usually did, worked quickly to clear my mind. By the time Sadie actually arrived, I convinced myself that I was above all that shit. If she was intimidated by the media, that was her problem. She made her choices, and so did I. Yeah…I thought that right up until the second she entered the gym. Even if I hadn’t seen her, I would have felt her. The moment Sadie walked into a room, she changed the atmosphere. Everyone working on the punching bags stood up a little taller. Boys missed their punches trying to impress her. And Jesus Christ, she wasn’t even in full knockout mode. The little suit she’d worn the previous night to dinner had been a far sight more exciting than the hideous dress she wore the first time we met; and, lo and behold, it seemed that said fugly dress had an even fuglier twin. What the hell was she wearing? Might as well have been a brown burlap sack for all the good it did for her figure. A figure that I knew was ripe and curvy in all the right places. The thing covered up her neck, her arms, and most of her legs; but not even that could detract from how goddamn gorgeous she was. All that long, blonde hair pulled into a tight, severe knot at the base of her neck, those gorgeous brown eyes, and that mouth…fuck, I remembered exactly what it tasted like. Every pulse of those sweet lower lips as she came on my cock. Goddamn it. She brought someone with her, and my first impulse was to send the guy right back down the stairs with a dropkick to the face. He was some pencil-necked-looking intellectual type; exactly the kind of man who blamed me for wetting his girl’s panties and making it harder for him to get a date. For a split second I wondered what he was doing with Sadie—my Sadie—before I realized that he was holding a camera case and a tripod. He was the photographer.

Fuck me. My mouth turned downward in a sharp scowl, I watched Sadie scan the gym, obviously looking for me. When that honey gaze of hers found mine, however, her face bloomed red and she looked away quickly. She leaned in to speak to the photographer, who I still didn’t like, and his dumb ass immediately perked up as he followed where she pointed. He looked eager to get to work. All I wanted to work on was breaking that smile of his in two. Sadie greeted Riley, and even waved at Ross, which went about making my blood boil again, before she and her dipshit associate finally made it to the ring. “Griffin Webb!” the pencil-neck exclaimed, gazing up at me with watery blue eyes as he held out his hand to shake. “Gary White, Grind photographer. It’s so nice to finally meet you in person! I’ve seen every one of your fights.” Oh fuck. Worse than a hater. He was a rabid fan. I kept the handshake as brief as I could before slipping under the ropes to join both of them on the floor. Sadie, for her part, kept her eyes on the floor as she murmured her greeting. “Good afternoon, Mr. Webb.” Mr. Webb? Mr. Webb my ass. Less than twenty-four hours ago sweet Sadie was moaning my name as I fingered the sweetness between her legs, and now I was Mister Webb? Before I could open my mouth to call her bullshit, she beat me to the punch. “Gary’s one of our best photographers. He’ll get some awesome shots of you to go with the article.” She turned to the pencil-neck like he was her salvation, giving him a small smile. “You want some action shots, right, Gary? And a few studious poses as well.” “Well, whatever Mr. Webb thinks would be best,” he stammered, eying me almost nervously. What I thought would be best was him getting the hell out of my gym, but I wasn’t about to do anything else as pig-headed as I had last night. I’d scared Sadie enough already, and no matter how pissed off I was, none of it was her fault. So I’d play nice. For the time being. “Yeah, lemme go find some chump to work with,” I grumbled, heading over in Ross’ direction. I figured I’d make amends for that morning by letting him be in the shots with me. Kid needed a little publicity. He was going to be a great fighter one day, if I didn’t kill him trying to protect him. As I tried to convince him that I hadn’t meant to choke the shit out of him, all I could think of was Sadie. She was here. After leaving the car last night in a huff with barely a word, she was within my reach again. The animal in me wanted to rip off that brown rag and carry her screaming form to the

locker room. To make her scream some more. Last night in the restaurant wasn’t enough. I wanted no more of that hidey-hole discreet bullshit. I wanted to get her alone where I could hear her bringing down the house. But there was fat chance of that now. Any idiot with eyes could see she was tiptoeing around me, Griffin Webb, the fighter with an attitude problem and major issues. As the photographer set up for his shots and Riley warned everyone else to stay out of the way, Sadie kept mostly to herself. Every once in a while she’d whisper to Mr. White, leaning suspiciously close to his shoulder as she looked intently at the shots that he was getting. Did she have to touch his arm like that? And did she have to whisper in his goddamn ear? It felt almost like she was taunting me, but even I was nowhere near that insane. The smell of peaches and cream floated around me while I chased Ross around the ring. The kid put up a brave fight, but nothing too tough. Enough for the photographer to get the action sequences that he wanted while I, for a change, tried my hand at showing off for the camera. Usually, I wasn’t into photo shoots. They were all the same. Some middle-aged, swooning woman asking me to take my shirt off and make eyes at the camera. I did them because Riley told me to, because I knew it was good for my image. Hell, I hadn’t even let them take school photos of me when I’d still been susceptible to that shit. I didn’t like cameras, and I didn’t like photographers. But what I liked even less? The way Sadie hovered around this guy, smiling and laughing at him when she wouldn’t so much as even look at me. For the first fifteen minutes or so, I kept things light with Ross. Pulled a few jabs and some pretty runof-the-mill kicks. The first time Sadie had ever walked into the gym, the electricity had been intense. I never abided by anyone except the guys watching me train, but Sadie seeing me go down? That hurt. I needed to show her what I was made of. To regain her attention. So I kicked it up a few notches. Pulled out all the stops. I performed a few jump kicks that had never seen the ring. Made Ross’ head spin with the speed of my combinations and executed so many takedowns that the kid was all but begging for mercy. I wasn’t usually so rough, but goddamn it, Sadie seemed hell-bent on pretending I didn’t exist. On the rare occasion that she did look up to see me fighting, she looked away the moment our eyes made contact and made herself busy with something else: watching other fighters, talking to Gary, she even headed into Riley’s office for a few minutes to chat him up. I might as well have been chopped fucking liver.

By the end of the two-hour session, I was sweating bullets from my exertions, and Ross was on the cusp of unconsciousness. Gary seemed happy, ranting and raving about several particular shots. As I made my way from the ring, he shoved his camera in my face for me to take a look and it took everything I had not to break the goddamn thing. I didn’t want to bring my number to two inside of twenty-four hours. Instead, gritting my teeth, I let him show me a multitude of pictures of myself in action—most of which I had to admit were pretty damn good. Better than anything I’d ever seen before, anyway. Sadie, however, was miraculously not interested. She waited off to the side, staring devotedly at the screen of her phone as if it contained the answers to all the problems in the universe. I wondered if she was actually reading anything, or simply looking for any excuse to avoid interacting with me. Luckily for me, I got a small chance when Gary asked if there was a computer around for him to upload the images to the cloud. I’d never been more grateful for technology in my goddamn life and all but shoved him towards Riley’s office, and the only computer in the gym. And then, suddenly, Sadie and I were alone. That dress of hers really was atrocious. I found myself wondering what she’d say if I asked to take her shopping. To find her some slinky silk numbers that clung to her curves and showed off that divine figure that she was hiding. I fucking hated shopping. Seemed like that was all women wanted to do, especially when it was your money they were spending. But something told me it would be a fight just to get Sadie through the front entrance of a mall, let alone buying her anything. It was a challenge I was prepared to take on. At least, once we got over all the bullshit from last night. She certainly wasn’t saying anything, so that meant it fell to me. Me, the guy who barely finished grade school. Fucking fantastic. “Look, Sadie,” I started, running a hand through my hair as I realized how damn awkward this was. When was the last time I apologized to a woman for anything? “I’m sorry. I really am. Last night I got a little hot-headed and I…” Fuck. Who was good with words? “I didn’t mean to scare you.” What I meant to do was take her home to my penthouse and worship her fucking gorgeous body until she couldn’t remember which way was up. At my apology, she stared slightly before finally raising her gaze from her phone to meet mine directly. For the first time in three hours.

God, she had the most gorgeous eyes—dark brown shot through with shades of honey and chocolate. When she looked at me like that it was hard not to jerk her to me and kiss that sweet mouth of hers breathless. “Actually, Griffin, I think I’m the one that owes you an apology.” Well, fuck. For a moment, I was so shocked I could only stare at her. What did she have to apologize for? Visibly taking a deep breath, sweet Sadie soldiered on. “Last night was…a mistake. I made a mistake. I was unprofessional at dinner and you…you were just doing what you do afterwards.” What I do? What the hell was that supposed to mean? I tried to choose my next words carefully. “So…does that mean you forgive me?” The smile she gave me didn’t quite reach her eyes. All at once, I felt it in my gut: this wasn’t going to end well. “There’s nothing to forgive. Everyone knows you’re Griffin Webb. You had a bit too much to drink before a media encounter. And I…” Her smile faded somewhat and she looked away from me again. God-fucking-dammit. “We need to keep things between us professional. It would be best for both parties involved.” Since when were we parties? I thought we were people? People with some goddamned blazing chemistry. I stared, trying to wrap my head around what she was saying. She didn’t want me anymore. Last night was it. There wasn’t going to be a repeat and there certainly wasn’t going to be a shopping trip. I was a fucking moron. But the last thing I needed was to let her know that. Sliding into the mask of neutrality that got me through most of my fights, I shrugged. “Sure. I got it.” Why the hell did this bother me so much? It wasn’t like I had never given a woman the boot before. Hell, I’d kicked some of the crazier ones out of my room half naked. It was in my nature. But I hadn’t been rejected in…what? Over a goddamned decade. Sadie’s smile got a little more genuine at my not-so-genuine reply. “Okay. Great. I’m glad we can both be adults about it.” No. Adults would make up somewhere dark and comfortable, fucking themselves into sated

exhaustion. This was pretentious and uncomfortable. And it hurt. “I’ll send you a copy of the article as soon as it’s gone through the editors at Grind. You’ll be the first to see it.” She held out her hand for me to shake, her slender fingers absolutely steady. Looking at them, I could only remember how her thighs had trembled as I made her come the previous night. Twice. “Sounds good,” I grunted, clasping her hand briefly for the split second before pencil-necked Gary emerged from Riley’s office. His smile was the only genuine one among us as he babbled on about how excited he was to edit the images. He had me sign a couple of autographs for him and his friends before promising to contact me with the re-touched images. And then, just like that, it was time for them to go. Gary gushed his way down the stairs to the main entrance, while Sadie maintained her distance. She met my eyes briefly one last time, waving before she followed her associate out and into the late summer afternoon. And I watched her go. She didn’t want me anymore. Well, I could fucking deal with that. I’d deal with it in the same way I dealt with everything else: I’d bury it. Excellent fuel for my next match. Dario Desmond, my opponent, would have no idea what hit him.


Though I was usually ready to call it quitting time around four or five, I stayed late to work with Ross and some of the other guys after Riley went home. I needed to be good and exhausted to be able to sleep that night, and I sure as hell didn’t want to think of Sadie. If I did, I might lose my goddamn mind. With every strike I took, I repeated to myself that she was gone. She didn’t want anything else to do with me…and maybe that was for the best. Who the hell was I kidding? I was in a sour fucking mood for the rest of the day, and the only way I

knew how to deal with it was to keep myself busy. It was probably around eight or nine by the time I finally prepared to leave the gym and the locker room was completely isolated. I took a long shower, unworried about running out the hot water. Despite the fact that I’d been beating up people and bags all day, my fingers still itched with the desire to make contact. With anything. I was forced to leave the shower stall before Riley’s décor suffered for it, and I dressed quickly. Maybe I still needed to run a few miles. If I went home with all this shit still pent up inside, I was liable to drink—and it wouldn’t be bubbly this time. I had a full bar in the kitchen, and when I wanted to, I could go hard. Riley would be pissed as hell. We had a deal that I wouldn’t drink in the week leading up to a fight. So that meant I was going to make a few laps around the park. I had a set of keys that Riley had given me a while ago, so it was no trial to lock up after I left. What was inconvenient, however, was the group of thugs who were waiting for me in the shadows where the streetlamps couldn’t reach. I could have smelled him from a mile away. The stench of fucking caviar and cheap cologne was disgusting. Turning, I repressed a groan. Just when I thought this day couldn’t get any worse. “Ivan, it’s late. What the fuck do you want?” “Well, since you’re in such a hurry, Griffin, I’ll get right to the point.” The thickly accented tone was enough to make my skin crawl and I dropped my bag near the entryway of the gym, preparing for trouble. Of course, Ivan’s entire crew accompanied him, and none of them looked happy to see me. The Russian himself stepped into the glow of the streetlight, and, for once, I wondered where the hell the cops were when you actually needed them. “You’ve a match at the end of this week, don’t you? Against Desmond?” I nodded, not trusting myself to speak. The sooner Ivan stated his business, the sooner I could blow him off and get to the park. “When you win, as we know you’re going to, I think about thirty percent will cover your debts.” Debts? God, Ivan and his fucking debts. “Ivan, this is the last time I’m going to tell you: I don’t owe you shit. I haven’t juiced for years, and you need to get the fuck off your high horse. I don’t owe you anything. I never will.” I had to admit, after the previous day, I didn’t really think he was going to let me get off so easily. I wasn’t disappointed.

Ivan’s smile was hard and threatening as he gestured to one of his meathead slaves. “Well, it’s a shame you feel that way, Griff. Perhaps I’ll have to work to convince you.” Well, there were five of him and only one of me. Of course, the street was absolutely deserted, unless you counted the few cars that sped past every now and again. The thug who was so intent on teaching me a lesson took a wicked-looking butterfly knife out of his pocket and my scowl deepened. Fuck. I was too exhausted for this. “Look, I don’t know how much Ivan is paying you,” I planted my feet, never taking my eyes off the giant, “but I can almost guarantee it’s not enough for a new fucking face.” “Pretty tough words, considering I’m going to turn yours to ribbons.” Great. Another Russian. Classic Ivan. The massive man moved pretty fast, but I was lighter. And I’d been training to evade idiots like him for half my life. I ducked under his long arms and delivered a knee to his abdomen that stole all his breath. He was gigantic, but a lot of that mass was yielding. While he attempted to shank the shit out of me, I hit him once in the groin, once on the shoulder, and head-butted him hard enough that stars burst to life before my vision. While I was still recovering, a sharp sting burned its way across my cheek, followed by the warm rush of blood. Cursing, I leapt back, clutching my jaw and feeling at the thin but deep cut the thug had managed to get in. I needed to end this. No matter how slow the idiot was, if he got lucky enough, he could gut me. And, atop that, any time Ivan felt like his generosity was running out, he could decide to sick his other goons on me. So I went back to my dirty roots. Crouching, I picked up a brick from the gym’s crumbling architecture. The next time Ivan’s hitman leapt at me, I demolished it right against the back of his head. He dropped like a stone, blood splattering everywhere. For a long minute there was nothing but silence on the stretch of sidewalk between us. Ivan looked from his guy to me and then back again. I was pretty sure I hadn’t killed the shmuck. Caused some serious brain damage, maybe, but he’d be no worse off than he was before. Me, on the other hand? Ivan had cut up my face. My publicist was going to have a fucking field day. Smearing blood over my chin, I faced down the Russian, praying that I wasn’t going to have to take

down all of his fucking guys. I might be a brute, but brutes had limits. And I’d already had a long day. To my surprise, Ivan’s mouth simply curved into a thin, cold smile as he held his hands up in front of himself in surrender. “Alright, alright. You win, Griffin. This time.” At the wave of his hands, his remaining goon squad scrambled to collect their fallen member. “Just know that I’m watching you. And my people are watching you.” I snorted, blood still rushing with adrenaline. “They’re welcome to their very own bricks, Ivan. It’s a two for one special.” Thankfully, he just left me there, bleeding like a stuck pig, as I considered my own luck. There was absolutely nothing that kept the man from siccing the rest of his dogs on me. He could have had me, right then and right there. So what stopped him? Cursing like a sailor, I bent to grab my bag, prepared to head for the hospital. My face was going to need a few stitches, and I could only pray that whatever they gave me for the pain didn’t knock me out. As I bit my lip in frustration, surprisingly, I found myself thinking, not of what Ivan might have in store for me…but about Sadie. If things had tuned out alright between us…if she had been with me when I came out of the gym… what the fuck would have happened to sweet Sadie? I couldn’t even imagine. And, somehow, I was glad I would never have to find out.


It couldn’t just be over, could it? What I had imagined would turn out to be my big break was exactly that—it was breaking my head wide open with the memories that assaulted me day in and day out. Griffin fucking Webb. I was beginning to wish I’d never met him. Almost as much as my body craved him every waking moment I should be doing something else. “How’s that article coming, girly?” When Stella plopped down next to me in an empty chair in the break room, I merely groaned, clutching my coffee cup to me like a lifeline. I had gotten perhaps seven hours of sleep the entire week. Every time I closed my eyes, vivid memories of how Griffin’s hands had felt roaming my bare skin kept me from getting very much rest. Though I’d told myself time and time again that I wasn’t the type to lounge in bed and pleasure myself, since meeting Griffin I had re-evaluated my stance. On at least two occasions after editing his article, I rushed home and went for my vibrator at lightning speed. Someone was punishing me, I knew. This was my comeuppance for spreading my legs for a man I barely knew. “I just want to be done with it.” I groaned. I knew I must look a mess. I barely had the energy to take a brush to my hair that morning and everyone had given me weird looks the moment I walked into the office. Of course, I couldn’t figure out if most of them were residual from having my face plastered all over the papers the previous week or if I just looked like I had just rolled out of bed. At the memory of the morning after I had “interviewed” Griffin Webb, a fresh wave of shame washed over me and I buried my face in my arms. “God, Stella. Am I an idiot?” “If you are,” She rubbed at my back soothingly, “you’re the luckiest idiot alive. You snagged Griffin Webb.” “I didn’t snag him,” I immediately barked defensively. “I fucked him. Completely different. I was supposed to handle things like a professional and I blew it.”

Stella merely sighed. She knew me too well to be put off by my irritation. “Well, you get points for stepping out of your comfort zone.” That was the understatement of the century. My comfort zone was so far beyond anything and everything that was Griffin Webb that the entire situation was utterly laughable. I’d gotten drunk and I let my baser desires take control. It was pretty much the most un-Sadie thing I’d ever done in my entire life. I’d dealt with my co-workers’ catcalls for the first three or four days in stolid silence, wallowing in my own misery as I was simultaneously assaulted with want for a man I couldn’t have. Shouldn’t have. I’d told him that things between us were going to remain professional, and I meant it. Even if every time I laid eyes on one of the images Gary had taken my mouth all but watered. How I had managed not to stare at the man while he put almost everyone in his gym through their paces, I’d never know. Not for the life of me. I’d been able to smell him like a goddamned dog in heat. The salty, musky scent of him as he’d worked himself into a good sweat. I’d heard every grunt of impact and, several times, caught the gleam of moisture off the devastating network of his muscles. What would it be like to see him completely naked, I wondered? In Filene’s, he’d barely undone his fly to get at me. I hadn’t had any opportunity at all to worship that glorious body of his. Christ, what the hell was wrong with me? This was completely unlike me. Usually after getting laid, I moped around for a few days, disappointed and telling myself how nice the guy was. Trying to work up the courage to try again. Mind you, being with any of my prior boyfriends hadn’t ended up with my name being emblazoned across the city headlines. I thanked God my parents lived in another state. All I had to do was finish the goddamned article and I would never have to deal with the man again. He would have made my career—as well as my sexual fantasies—for the foreseeable future. Or, so I thought. “Sadie!” Both Stella and I straightened at the appearance of our boss in the doorway of the break room. Alex, as usual, looked as someone had peed in his coffee—meaning that he was pissed off about something or the other. I hoped it wasn’t at me. I didn’t think I could take any more stress this week.

“What’s up, Alex?” I managed to croak, looking from him to Stella and then back again. He leaned against the doorframe, considering me with intense gray eyes a moment before he spoke. “Been reading up on the first few drafts of the Webb piece you sent to me.” Oh boy. I tensed, ready for the building to come crumbling down on my head. Alex kept me on a knife’s edge for a moment before he finally continued. “Good stuff.” The comment left him in a grunt that had my eyes widening. I’d struggled over every single word of that damned article, all but condemning it to be utter crap. And he liked it. “You…think it’s good?” “Something like that,” he replied, his eyes gleaming with sudden amusement. “Missing a few things, but that’s nothing tonight can’t rectify.” “Tonight?” Alright, now I was utterly lost. I looked to Stella in question only to have her shrug. She was just as confused as I was. “I’ve managed to get you a media pass for the Desmond-Webb match. I need you to attend so we can fit in a few lines about Griffin’s fighting style.” I was pretty sure my jaw hit the floor. Me? Attend Griffin’s fight? I was having enough trouble contending with the mere memory of the man. Now I’d have to see him again? “Alex…I…I can’t. Tonight I…” My brain rushed to think of some excuse to get me out of the event. “I have a prior commitment!” “Cancel it.” The man didn’t even pretend that I had a life. His response was flat, more a demand than a request. “You’ve committed to the story, Sadie, and it needs this little touch. Just hit the match, come up with some technical jargon, and try not to end up in the guys’ locker room.” I turned cherry from the top of my head to the tips of my toes and prayed that the world would swallow me up at that exact moment. Alex merely winked at me—winked— before stalking away. I was beyond mortification. “You lucky duck.” Trust Stella to be ever enthusiastic. Her reaction, however, only drew a glare from me as I tried to figure out what the hell I was supposed to do with myself. Write about Griffin’s fighting style? I didn’t know the first thing about MMA matches! Alex had all but sentenced me to intensive research for the next few hours before I actually got off work. “How does this make me lucky? I’m supposed to be forgetting him, Stella.”

“Right,” she returned, eying me skeptically. “Forgetting that the man screwed your brains out in a public place and beat up a camera guy for you. Good luck with that.” God, why did she have to remind me?


Naturally, I spent the next few hours preparing for the ordeal I’d have to go through later on that night. While I might resent Alex for his little surprise, I was still dedicated to being good at my job, no matter what anyone in the office thought. I never realized that two people beating the stuffing out of one another could be so technical, and after an hour or two of reading through dozens of rules, my head was spinning. I was on my third cup of coffee for the day and I wanted nothing more than to collapse on my desk. I was in no condition to venture into a world unknown and watch two men throttle one another in a cage. Frowning, I gazed down at the media pass Alex had dropped by my desk. According to the laminated ticket, I was assigned a seat in VIP section four—very close to the stage. I would have a prime seat to observe. Blowing out a breath, I let my eyes closed for a moment as I attempted to calm my nerves. This was just another job. Griffin and I were on the same page; besides, it wasn’t as if he would even notice me there. He’d be too busy getting the shit kicked out of him—or kicking the shit out of his opponent. Leaving me free to fantasize. For a moment, I clicked away from numerous webpages bunched with too-small text about MMA rules and regulations and glanced at the article that had given me so much trouble. The pictures Gary had taken were breathtaking. He wasn’t one of Grind’s best photographers for nothing. There were several action shots of Griffin that captured his very essence. Spinning kicks, uppercuts, mid-section strikes…all executed with that God-like body gleaming with sweat. I was well and truly lost. Covering my eyes with my hands, I did all I could to forget the evening we spent together—and so, naturally, ended up re-living it. And not just how ridiculously, jaw-droppingly gorgeous Griffin was. The way he smiled. The way he

laughed. When we were together, I felt almost like he never did that for anyone except me. I’d certainly never seen him smiling in any of his pictures. As on-edge as I’d been, the man could actually be charming when he set his mind to it. I enjoyed myself right up until the point where he kissed me. Then enjoyment turned to something more. I forced myself to take a deep breath. I could do this. Just go to the match, watch the fight, and write down some halfway intelligent sounding details. That wouldn’t be too hard, would it? After all, I was Sadie Warner. And I had been Sadie Warner the reporter long before I was a conquest of Griffin Webb’s.


The place was a complete madhouse. I had hardly ever been to a public sporting event before, let alone a fight. I supposed there might be a few hundred people, when really there were thousands. The stadium itself was one of the premier locations in the city, and I found myself surrounded by hardcore fans that all but herded me into it. Luckily, I managed to step out of the throng close to the entrance and gather myself. It certainly wasn’t my scene, and, once again, I contemplated if Alex knew what he was doing sending me in there. I had to remind myself that it was for the story. The story was all that mattered now. So…why were my palms sweaty? Why was my heart fluttering in my chest at the prospect of seeing Griffin again? After my pass was checked, I acquired an escort who led me down into the main arena. I was still in awe of how many people could fit into the space when he directed me into a section of perhaps twelve seats right in front of the ring. I was the first one seated, which gave me a good opportunity to take in my surroundings. Everyone present was out for blood, it seemed like. The iron cage surrounding the ring ensured that no one escaped before the match was over, and I could only imagine what was going to occur once the match started. From the rules I’d read, I knew that, unlike in boxing, almost everything in MMA was fair game save crotch shots and sucker punches. And that, often, by the time everything was said and done, the floor was covered in blood. At the thought of seeing Griffin abused to within an inch of consciousness, my heart was suddenly in

my throat. All at once, I was worried for him. I hadn’t read up much on his opponent, but Dario Desmond was one of the few guys in the world with stats better than Griffin. All the more reason for him to fight the man, I knew, but my having to watch it? I was beginning to feel sick to my stomach. Slowly, as the time for the fight drew nearer, the seats around me filled. I was startled to realize that the attendants were mostly women, with a few male reporters scattered here and there. And not only that, I noted, chewing my lip nervously, it was a bevy of quite possibly all the most beautiful women in the city. Redheads, brunettes, platinum blondes—all tanned to within an inch of their lives, perfectly coiffed, and expertly made up, wearing outfits that looked as though they might be more at home in a club than in a fighting arena. I eyed one raven-haired beauty with crimson lips wearing a mini-skirt and top that barely covered her goods. She took one look at the other women present, including myself, and stuck her nose in the air. If one were to believe her attitude, she might have been the most important person there. Then again, the others weren’t acting very differently. In no time, the VIP area was completely filled, and the few male reporters there were trying pretty unsuccessfully to flirt with any woman who would give them the time of day. Typical males. These women looked like the sort that didn’t get involved unless you had a private jet and oodles of money. And they were in Griffin’s VIP section. Inexplicably, my heart began to sink. “Ladies and gentleman, please take your seats!” A voice from the loudspeaker made me jump as it echoed about the arena. “The fight will be starting in five minutes!” It was as if the statement set off a chain reaction among all the women seated around me. The ones sitting in the front seats seemed to be trying their hardest to block those in the rear seats—me among them. There was a slew of passive aggressive statements that were hurled through the air and all but made me squirm in my seat. “He needs to see me. Calm down, honey.” “No, he needs to see me. I don’t even know who the hell you are.” “Both of you are insane. Just calm down and watch the match. I’m in plain view.”

I realized all at once that these were all women who, at one point or the other, must have meant something to Griffin. What exactly that something was, I couldn’t be sure, but I was sure they couldn’t all be the loves of his life. Christ, there had to be at least fifteen of them. They were thin, classless, utterly gorgeous things, bickering and fighting like high schoolers. Usually, I would feel completely above women of such caliber. Just then, however, I felt sick to my stomach. It was obvious that these women, all of them, had slept with Griffin. I had to wonder if it had happened the same way it had with me. Had he just ripped their clothes off in a semi-public place and gone at it, or had he played the slow seducer, only to dump them later for his next conquest? I should have been angry, disgusted. Anything but what I actually felt. And what I felt was jealousy. Imagining Griffin touching, kissing…fucking all these other hussies… did they even shower before they moved on to the next man in line? I’d heard somewhere that Griffin stood to earn a cool fifteen million if he won this fight. Were the vultures hanging around, hoping that he spent some of that money on them? I scowled at the very thought. The only reason I’d even gotten involved with Webb in the first place was to do my job. Of course, such a thing was hard to do when the man was so ungodly gorgeous, when his seldom heard laugh was so unbelievably genuine. Chewing my lower lip contemplatively, I wondered if any of the women here knew that if he wasn’t a fighter, he would be a cop. He wanted to help people, despite the bad boy persona he spread around. I wondered if they knew how he liked his steak, or how often he frequented Filene’s. Did they even care? No doubt they were too busy trying to be in the limelight, spreading their legs, and hoping to open up his wallet to really address what kind of person he was. “And now, ladies and gentlemen, please welcome our visiting opponent! Standing at six feet three and weighing in at one hundred ninety pounds, we have Dario Desmond!” I already knew from looking at internet images what Desmond looked like, but up close he was even more of a monster than I’d expected. Taller than Griffin and with about twenty pounds on him, he hailed from the Arabian Peninsula and had an almost perfect fighting record. Zero losses, eighteen wins, fourteen of them by knockout. At the announcement of his presence, the crowd proceeded to catcall and harangue him— they were touchy, and expectedly so. Desmond had come onto Griffin’s turf. He didn’t seem to mind though. The bearded, dark-skinned man’s expression was almost predatory, his golden eyes bright and gleaming with dark intent as he danced from one foot to the other. “And next, we have our reigning champion and city’s son!” The announcer’s voice boomed with pride, almost as if he spoke of someone close to him. The lights dimmed as bright spots flickered on

in the far corner of the arena. “Standing at six feet two and weighing in at one hundred eighty-five pounds, number three in line for the heavyweight MMA world title, Griffin Webb!” The crowd went wild. Though I couldn’t actually see him, as everyone in the arena had risen to their feet, images of Griffin were projected on all the big screens in the huge space. Even though it had only been a week since I’d seen him last, he took my breath away. He was dressed in a black silk robe and matching shorts, hair pulled back from his finely boned face, that gorgeous mouth of his set in a hard line. Green eyes glinted devastatingly, intimidatingly, and my breath caught as I took in the long, healing cut that ran the length of his jaw and under his chin. When the hell had he gotten that? Had someone in the gym gone a little too hard? Though the crowd was roaring in anticipation of the fight, in that moment I found myself intensely concerned with the minute imperfection on Griffin’s face. Had he gotten into a fight? Had someone hurt him? He hadn’t been in the news ever since our unfortunate incident at Filene’s. What could have happened in a week? To the raucous music of the crowd he made his way down the aisles and into the cage. I realized then just how close I was to the actual event—not more than twenty full feet away. My view was somewhat ruined by all the women scrambling to their feet to try to get a glimpse of him. My mind instantly went back to the photography shoot with Gary. I had pretended I wasn’t watching, but I was. Every powerful kick and sinuous move of that muscled form of his. I remembered how easily he’d lifted me onto the table at Filene’s…how quickly he’d slid into me and how sublime his cock had felt inside me. And just like that, my panties were drenched. My face flamed as I realized how easily the memory of the man had gotten me wet in a crowded place. By that point, several well-muscled men were forcing the women around me back into their seats so the people behind us could see. I tried not to grimace as several thongs were exposed by their seated position, shifting in my chair so I wouldn’t get an eyeful. The motion, unfortunately, brought me into contact with the male reporter seated to my right. When I jostled him, the graying man looked me over in a long sweep. Then, he very deliberately stared at the extremely buxom, scantily clad woman on my left. As I always did, I was dressed somewhat modestly, in a brown button-up top and a knee-length skirt. Suffice it to say, I looked pretty damn dowdy compared to the other bimbos in my section. Mr. Middle-Aged arched a brow, his mouth quirking in a smile just short of mocking. “Are you

Webb’s sister or something?” I’ve never been a violent person, but I could have punched him in the mouth. His sister? I knew I tended to dress conservatively, but was I really that bad? As Griffin and his opponent faced one another, ready to begin the match, I glared at the reporter before turning away from him to force myself to watch the fight. As I did so, I yanked the first two buttons of my shirt open before untucking it and rolling the fabric up to expose my pale midriff. I had a pretty alright body, if most of the males eying me around the office were any indication. I was among inappropriate company, so why not blend the hell in? I was somewhere between irritation and insanity as I tied my shirt below my breasts and pulled the neck down to further expose my cleavage. I released my hair from its tight knot at the base of my neck to let it spill over my shoulders in waves. Rising slightly out of my seat, I hiked up my skirt until it reached thigh length, tucking the waistline to compensate for the extra length. There was little I could do about my no-nonsense flats, but my legs were long enough. My mouth set into a tight line, I whipped my tiny makeup bag out of my purse and applied the reddest lipstick I had—that was to say, something a mild coral color. But when I looked in the mirror, I found myself far more gratified with my reflection. I was just as exposed as the women around me, without half the makeup. As a bonus, I wasn’t showing my underwear off to the entire cosmos, which I had to be grateful for. My white cotton bikini briefs were hardly flattering. Then again, I hadn’t thought to buy skimpy underwear in half an age. I’d been far too focused on my career to concentrate on being sexy. Or at least sexy in the context of what these women considered alluring. I was so wrapped up in my little attempt to flee ““sister” territory that I almost missed the fight starting. But I couldn’t have ignored the crowd’s roar of excitement if I’d been on my deathbed. It yanked my attention back to the ring, where Griffin and Desmond were circling one another carefully, sizing each other up. I immediately forgot that I was supposed to be taking notes, that this was for the purpose of a job, and that I hadn’t wanted to come here in the first place. All that mattered was watching the match. It was more brutal than I ever could have imagined. Within the first five minutes, it was evident that Desmond’s extra height and twenty pounds gave him an undeniable advantage. He had a longer reach, and when the man went to punch, the force behind his movement was devastating. Griffin managed to dance around him for a good half of that time before Desmond started landing hits. The smaller fighter’s mouth was quickly bloodied, and his ribs bruised. Every impact visibly drove

him back and I found myself swallowing my alarm. This was nothing like the sparring matches that occurred in the gym, where it was obvious that Griffin was on top. Desmond wouldn’t stop unless the ref told him so, and it looked like he had the upper hand. At the end of the first round, Desmond barely had a scratch on him, while Griffin was spitting out blood. It looked like the stitches on his face had broken open, covering his jaw in a thin sheen of blood. If I thought I’d been on edge before, it was nothing compared to how I felt in that moment. While the women around me were whispering excitedly, even speculating on how they would get Dario Desmond’s attention if he was the one to win the fight, my eyes were glued to Griffin’s image on the monitor overhead. He was sitting in the corner, getting his injuries seen to and his mouth washed out. “Looks like Webb is having a harder time than projected, folks!” The announcer all but crowed his excitement. “Desmond’s reach is getting past his solid defense and it looks like an old wound has opened. Now would be a great time for him to turn on some of that trademark speed!” It was a struggle for me to stay in my seat as the second round started. Griffin’s expression was determined as he rose from his chair to strut back towards the center of the ring, his wrapped fists raised. When the bell sounded for the second round, I saw what the announcer meant. Though I had observed the way Griffin moved when he worked out, that was nothing compared to the way he moved now. Every time Desmond went for him, he ducked out of the way, moving almost quicker than the eye could see in an attempt to get behind the bigger bruiser. I bounced around in my seat, biting at my fingers as he landed a roundhouse kick to the back of Desmond’s head that made him stumble forward. Then, out of nowhere, the larger man righted himself and lunged at Griffin, hitting him in the stomach so hard that his grunt echoed around the crowded stadium. His back hit the side of the cage closest to the VIP section where I sat—hard—and then he was fending off his opponent’s jackhammer-like punches, to the outrage of almost everyone present. Before I could help myself, I shot to my feet, heart in my throat. “Griffin!” Someone had to stop him! Desmond was going to kill him! Luckily, the round came to an end before Griffin could be beaten to a pulp and Desmond moved off of him with an animalistic grin. Luckily, Griffin’s defense was practiced enough that his opponent hadn’t actually managed to land that many punches, but he was breathing hard as he went back to his corner, and when he spat out his mouthpiece, his teeth were stained red. Christ, I couldn’t take this.

“Come on, Griffin! Don’t be such a pussy!” A bottle-blonde sitting in front of me called out, making me wince at the grating tone of her voice. A pussy? I’d like to see her get up in the ring with a giant like Desmond! “Yeah, come on, Griff, honey! Man up and fuck that idiot up!” Jesus, they were all crazy! However, their catcalls did serve to get Griffin’s attention. He was all but thunderous as his gaze jerked to the VIP section for the first time. I glared accusatorily at the women seated before me, swallowing the urge to tear their hair out. The last thing Griffin needed to hear right now was that he was any less of a man. How could they accuse someone of being inadequate when it was obvious they were barely women themselves! When I looked back at the cage, I froze. Griffin was staring at me. He had torn his attention from the hussies in the row before me and was now staring directly at my flushed face, his expression unreadable. Inhaling sharply, I quickly raised my hands to hide my face, even as heat suffused my body. It was as though those green eyes saw right through my veneer of calm to the hunger below the surface. All at once, I was aching between the legs and breathless, struggling to regulate my heart rate. Of course, the shallow whores in my section immediately started squabbling over which of them he’d been staring at, but that hardly mattered anymore. Griffin’s gaze was burned into my mind, and nothing, not even an act of divine intervention, could have pulled me from the arena at that moment. When I worked up the courage to expose my flaming face, the third round of the match was starting. There was nothing on Griffin’s face that reflected that he’d seen me and I breathed a sigh of relief. Maybe he hadn’t recognized me. Hell, I didn’t recognize me with what I had done to my clothes. The bell rang, and the final round began. Griffin moved like a man possessed. When Desmond reached for him, he streaked under the man’s defense and reeled back to deliver a devastating blow to his jaw. It happened so fast that I was sure some people had blinked and missed it. Desmond hit the mat hard, knocked clean out. And the crowd was on its feet.

The din was so intense I almost couldn’t hear the announcer counting. It was evident from the sight on the monitor that the dazed Desmond wasn’t going to rise without help, and by the time he got to ten, every woman around me was screaming. And I was able to take my first real breath since the match started. He won. Griffin won. And nearly gave me a heart attack in the process. “Now second in the world, ladies and gentleman, give it up for our son, our champion, Griffin Webb!” I almost couldn’t look at him. There was so much blood, and he was still scowling like a goddamn idiot at the camera like all this was par for the course. It took a moment for me to remind myself that it was. Griffin got beaten up every single day and liked it. Music played and the city flag was draped over his broad shoulders; and, all at once, I had the unfathomable urge to touch him. To wrap that big, strong body of his in my embrace and take all his pain away. God, he looked awful. Was I insane for wanting him with every fiber of my being? If I thought the half hour leading up to the match was a shit show, it was nothing compared to what came after. People were celebrating, drunk with revelry and violence in the aisles. Some of them were leaving but most of them weren’t, and almost all the women from my VIP section made a beeline for the aisle that Griffin disappeared down. They were all turned away by the burly men protecting the backstage section of the stadium from the public; no matter how much they begged and pleaded, no matter how much cleavage they flashed, the immense men weren’t budging. No doubt each and every one of the bitches hoped to be the one Griffin took to his bed that night. As I stood at the end of the aisle, watching them, I swallowed the bile that rose in the back of my throat. I couldn’t stand the thought of him choosing one of them. Not when I wanted him so badly I was almost shaking with it. My mind whirled as I gazed over the stadium, wondering where Griffin would come out when he finished cleaning up. As I did, I spotted another, half-hidden entrance to the backstage area behind the cage. And almost no one noticed that it was there.

All but holding my breath, I turned on my heel and darted towards it, hoping against hope that I could get somewhere where all those other women had failed. I was destined to be disappointed. Just as I reached the curtain, another huge man slipped out, blocking my way with arms crossed over a massive chest. “Where the hell do you think you’re going?” His growl was just as scary as the rest of him and my words caught in my throat. Damn it. What was I supposed to say? “Um…” I raised the badge Alex had gifted me with hours before. “Press?” “There’s a conference after Webb cleans up.” The guard barked harshly, making me wince. “You can ask your questions then.” I had almost given up hope when a familiar voice interrupted. “Hey…you’re that chick. Williams…Warbler…” I turned in shock to see Riley O’Connell coming up behind me, a knowing smile on his face. I had to beat down the urge to take offense that he didn’t know my name and, instead, plaster a smile on my face. “Warner. Sadie Warner.” “Yeah, that’s right!” The man gave me a very intimate up and down that reminded me of how I’d modified my clothes and I blushed. “You did that piece on Griffin last week.” “Still doing, actually.” I held up my pad and press pass as if it were my lifeline, and Riley was my savior. “I was actually hoping I’d get to talk to him…alone. If it wouldn’t be too much trouble.” O’Connel’s expression turned from knowing to almost licentious as a grin spread across his face. “Talk. Right.” He nodded once, curtly, at the guard in my way. “Let her back, James.” The beefy individual followed his order without question and I could have jumped for joy, streaking past him. Backstage, I realized, was almost as crowded as the arena was, what with cleanup crew and fighters’ entourages milling around. It took me about ten minutes of squeezing through the throng until signs finally led me to Griffin’s locker room. As I slipped in, what looked like a doctor and his attendants were coming out, their arms laden with bloody bandages. My chest clenched as my breath caught.

Was he hurt that badly? I didn’t give myself time to contemplate it, simply making my way into the otherwise deserted space where I hoped to find the victorious fighter. And there he was. I stopped five paces into the gleaming locker room and watched, transfixed, as Griffin’s form twisted in front of me, whipping a bloodstained towel from his shoulders to toss onto the bench. I covered my mouth at the sight of his face, not nearly as battered as I’d feared, but nonetheless, re-stitched where his cut had split and with a spot of blood at the corner of his mouth. It was clear from the violent bruising along the gleaming muscles of his left side that the damage there was the most severe. However, Griffin didn’t seem to have any trouble moving, the tendons in his back contracting as he reached down to shuck his shorts. Rendering him gloriously naked. Obviously, he hadn’t noticed my presence. God…he was gorgeous. The muscles of his behind tight and decadent, his legs powerful and muscular, hair freed from the rubber band to plaster to his back. He was dirty, sweaty, and bloody from his match. If I went through with this, Griffin was the kind of man who stood to hurt me worse than I’d ever been hurt. And I had never wanted anyone more in my life. “Griffin?”


My jaw hurt like a son of a bitch. It was probably the most painful thing that had happened to me in a while, and it wasn’t even from the damned fight. Frowning, I touched the stitches the doc had renewed on the right side of my face and winced. I felt the bitches pop when Desmond took his first swing at me and cursed the motherfucker seven ways to Sunday. Him and Ivan, who I suppose was really to blame. As I yanked my hair free, finally alone in the solitude of the empty locker room, I exhaled hotly. That had been far too close for comfort. For the first two rounds of the damn fight I’d been lethargic, almost listless. It had been that way ever since the previous week. Ever since Sadie walked out on me. I must be the biggest pussy in the history of the world to let a woman affect the tide of a fight. Despite his size, I normally could have taken Desmond down in under two minutes. But my head hadn’t been in the game. It didn’t help that there had been a few ridiculous whores screaming at me not to be a pussy. I clenched my fists as I remembered Rhonda yelling at me to just hit Desmond. If that was her strategy with men, no wonder they didn’t want to do much more than fuck her. I’d been so fucked up that I thought I saw her, for God’s sake. Sadie. Why the hell would she come to one of my fights? She’d all but told me she was finished with me, that things between us were just “professional.” I should have just gone on with my life, instead I was brooding like one of those emo-fuck guys who was probably more her type. But I could have sworn I saw her. Right there in the VIP section. Wearing some glorious shirt that showed her flat, creamy belly, and half her tits as she stared back at me, red-faced. It was her sweet mouth I was thinking of, her curvy, ripe form, when I knocked Desmond the fuck out. Let her put that in her article. But I knew better.

Sadie hadn’t really come. She was probably back in her apartment, sheets tucked up beneath her chin as she diddled herself to mediocre memories. And I needed a goddamn shower. It wasn’t going to help me to think of her now. Reaching down, I shucked off my shorts, kicking them aside as I began towards the stalls. “Griffin?” I whirled, every muscle in my body tensing. And there she was. Like a goddamn wet dream walking. She really was wearing a top that exposed half her gorgeous tits. The brown fabric tied high on her belly, and her skirt rode low on her hips, barely reaching her mid-thigh. That certainly wasn’t the modest little Sadie I knew. Despite how much I was enjoying the view, the clothing looked all wrong on her. I wanted her to have more on so I could take it all off. My body reacted immediately, betraying my poker face. “What are you doing here?” My demand was curt, almost sharp. “And what the hell are you wearing?” She jumped slightly before shifting on those long legs of hers—no heels. “I…well…the other girls…” She trailed off, toying with her press pass as she mouthed words I didn’t quite hear. The other girls? Those skanks who were determined to show everyone their natural hair colors? Sadie couldn’t be like those whores if she tried. When I arched a brow, she took a deep breath, her face reddening, and tried again. “My boss sent me…” She swallowed thickly, her throat contracting as she faltered again. I crossed my arms over my chest, doing everything I could to ignore all the blood in my body pulsing downward to my hungry cock. Jesus, I had touched myself just hours ago—and when I had, I thought of her. Blonde-haired fucking sex goddess. Then, she surprised the hell out of me. All at once, Sadie dropped her notebook and her press pass and stalked up to me to throw her arms around my neck. Her mouth met mine fiercely, hungrily, and a moan of pure want tore through me. Despite how pissed I was, my hands immediately delved through her hair as I slanted my mouth against hers to get a better taste. She tasted like honey, peaches, and everything that was good in the world.

Everything I wasn’t. “I watched the fight.” Sadie murmured the words hotly against my mouth, arching her barely dressed body close to mine. The heat of her was almost scalding against my cock, and I grabbed her hips to jerk them against mine, biting down on her lower lip with a low curse. “Jesus Christ, Griffin, you scared me. Are you alright?” This wasn’t fucking fair. She didn’t get to care. Not after pushing me away. Not after making me almost sick with wanting her. “I’m fine,” I growled against her neck, my hand fisting in her silky blonde locks as I was torn between lust and anger. “Fucking fine. Fuck.” I nipped at her throat hard enough to leave marks and she moaned, squirming against me. “Don’t tell me things are professional and then come in here like this, Sadie. I’m not going through that shit again.” I slammed her up against the closest row of lockers with enough force to make her gasp, my hold on her hair drawing her neck taut. I should have scared her. Innocent little Sadie being thrown around a room like a rag doll? I expected her to slap me and run out screaming. Instead, the little minx just shuddered, thrusting those gorgeous tits out like a feast for the taking. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Griffin I just…I don’t know!” Reaching up, I grasped the flimsy material of her shirt and ripped it right down the front to bare her cotton bra so a sharp gasp escaped her. The buttons popped off to ping off against the tile and I forced myself to breathe. “What don’t you fucking know?” My hand slid up to caress the line of her throat before wrapping around it with just enough pressure to make her tremble. “I don’t understand!” she all but sobbed, writhing in my grip as she clutched at my wrist. “You make me feel things I don’t fucking understand.” There. There it was. My gaze never leaving hers, I reached down to undo the zipper of her skirt, jerking it southward before tearing the garment off her entirely, leaving her only in her flats and lingerie. She was gorgeous…fucking gorgeous. And she was wet. The front of her panties were dark with arousal for me, and my cock jumped at the sight. She liked being treated like this. Being punished. Brusquely, I cupped the heat between her legs and she cried out sharply as I rubbed back and forth.

“This is mine, Sadie.” I was staking my claim—and I had no plans to need to do it a third time. “And I’m going to make sure you never forget it. But first…” With my grip on her hair, I forced her onto her knees in front of me until that hot little mouth was achingly close to my cock. “You’re going to make things up to me, aren’t you?” With my free hand, I stroked myself, just brushing the tip of my dick over those cherry lips. “A whole week without that sweet pussy. You made me lose my mind. I almost lost the fight,” I growled, mesmerized by the almost adoring light in her eyes as she watched me jack myself against her mouth. “So you’re gonna suck this cock until I’m satisfied, aren’t you?” When she nodded eagerly, I almost lost it right then. My sweet little Sadie wanted this just as much as I did—and she’d been hiding it from me all this time. When she opened her mouth to take my dick in, I groaned. Hot, wet, eager, her tongue slid from the tip and over each ridge beneath as I took hold of her hair with both hands, pressing deep. To my shock and fucking disbelief, she took it all. She took me down her throat, her fingers curling into my hips for more. Like I was going to deny that. I did just what I promised. I was rougher than I should have been, but that soft, perfect heat…the sight of her looking up at me as her tongue worked magic on my cock…it was too much. Holding her in place, I fucked my Sadie’s mouth slowly and deliberately; I could feel the muscles in my thighs tensing like I’d gone all day at the gym. Fuck. Fuck. It was enough that she swallowed and sucked like I was the finest thing she’d ever tasted, but that she let me all but shove my erection down her throat? That she took it all without missing a beat? I’d never wanted to come so badly in my life. But I couldn’t. Now that she’d gotten her punishment, I needed to make her scream. When I backed off, yanking her to her feet, she whimpered. Actually whimpered. Like I’d taken away her favorite candy or something. Tossing her over my shoulder, I carried her to the shower, the resounding smack I gave her ass echoing off the tile. The moment I set her down in a stall, I turned the water on and she gasped as it drenched her underwear. “Griffin!” “Shut up,” I all but snarled, jerking her panties down her legs as I worked her bra down to bunch at her waist. Her nipples were perfect and pink; despite the warm temperature of the water, they perked

the moment they were exposed. “Or I’ll put my cock back in your mouth.” Her lips parted immediately to disobey, but I cut her off my pressing my tongue past them, kissing her until she was breathless with it, moaning and clawing at me like an animal. I liked this side of Sadie. She’d shed that demure, pretentious shell to become a creature of pure need —like hell I was going to deny her. She raised her legs to wrap around my waist as the water sluiced over us and I groaned as the wet heat of her wedged up against my cock. “Tell me you want it,” I demanded, just over the din of the water. “Tell me you need it.” “Griffin, please…” She was almost sobbing, squirming against me like a cat in heat. “Please!” “Please what?” She gasped as I took up another handful of her hair, forcing her to look at me. Her dark eyes gleamed with desire, and the heat from the shower flushed her cheeks a pretty pink. I watched her hesitate, struggling with the coy, shy little being inside her that wanted its propriety back. I’d let her have it over my dead body. “Tell me, Sadie,” I growled threateningly, “or I leave your pussy hot and aching, I swear to fucking God.” Her eyes flew wide in horror a moment before the words burst from her. “Fuck me! Please, Griffin, fuck me!” When I thrust home, she all but screamed my name, her fingernails drawing furrows down my already abused back. I pinned her against the water-slick tile with my cock, so deep I swore I could feel her pushing me out. She was scalding, tight as hell, and so mind-blowingly perfect that I had to think of every drill I knew of to keep from coming on the spot. I didn’t have it in me to be gentle. Not then. I fucked her hard, relishing in her cries as she bounced up against me. Every time I pressed into her sweet pussy, she gasped and moaned, water streaming down her chest to pool between her breasts until I had to take a sweet nipple between my teeth. She never had a chance—legs suspended in the air, completely open for me. I pounded into her until I felt her seizing around me, until her breath hitched and she came, hard, her entire body trembling. With a low curse against her shoulder, I stopped just long enough to groan at the feel of her squeezing me like a goddamn vice before I let her down. I didn’t expect her to be able to stand on her own two legs, and she couldn’t. A small sound of protest

escaping her as she tried to catch her breath. So I helped her. Going down on my knees, I hoisted one of her milky thighs over my shoulder and covered her still sweetly spasming warmth with my hungry mouth. She squealed. It would have been cute if I wasn’t hard as nails. I smacked her behind sharply in warning as she tried to escape, tugging at handfuls of my damp hair. Her lower lips were almost sweeter than her mouth, and when my tongue found the decadent little bead of her clit, she came against my mouth again in a gush of nectar that made me groan. As much as I wanted to be down there all night, my cock screamed for attention. Rising to my feet, I spun Sadie around to press her breasts against the cool tile and she gasped, her toes curling at the sensation. Grabbing two handfuls of her ass, I squeezed sharply to ensure she was still paying attention. If I thought I had exhausted her, I had another thing coming when she pressed her behind back against me, impaling herself on my cock with a suddenness that stole my breath. And any sanity I had left. My grip on her hips almost bruising, I fucked her until her moans and gasps were all I could hear, until the sight of her scrabbling at the tile for purchase was burned into my mind. When her thighs started trembling, the sweet, delicate inner muscles around me contracting desperately, I knew she was going to come for me again. And I needed it. Reaching between her legs, I found the tiny bead of her clit to begin to circle with my thumb, my calves tightening as she clenched around me in response. “Come on, baby…let me feel it.” I nipped at her neck, each thrust making her whimper. “Come on my cock one more time. Come for me, Sadie.” She didn’t disappoint me. Rising onto her toes, Sadie seized so tight on my next thrust that I saw stars. Groaning her name against her shoulder, I pressed her against the wall as I came inside her in long, hot spurts that rendered me mindless for a full five minutes afterward. I fucking saw stars. Stars. When I finally came back down, it was to Sadie’s trembling form pressed against mine. I sagged against her, all but pinning her smaller form against the shower wall, and when we released, a low curse escaped me. “Fuck.” I propped myself up on an arm to allow her to breathe and she groaned softly. “You alright? Did I hurt you?” She shuddered before turning her head to look back over her shoulder with a lazy, breathtaking smile. “God, you hurt me so good.”

Goddamn but the words were enough to make my cock jerk in interest all over again. When she felt it, Sadie sucked her breath in between her teeth. I’d created a monster. “Jesus, Sadie.” I pulled out of her, thoroughly enjoying the sight of my come staining her thighs before my hand cracked against her already red ass sharply, making her jump. “Keep talking like that and I’ll give you another fucking helping.” Taking her arm more gently, I pulled her beneath the still warm spray as both our bodies cooled, running my hands over her soft skin. I’d missed her. She gazed up at me silently, with a well-fucked expression I was more than glad to have put there, until both of us were relatively clean. I took a moment to indulge, taking in her kiss-swollen lips, her still perked nipples, and the trembling of her thighs before swallowing a groan. We needed to get home. ASAP. Shutting off the water, I tugged her from the shower. “Come on.” Her honey eyes widened. “I don’t have any clothes! Where are we going?” I found a clean towel, wrapping it around her as I cut off her protests with my mouth, kissing her until she was soft and compliant against me. “Back to my place.” I nipped at her lower lip before sucking it lingeringly. “I need to unwind.” I kissed at her jaw, admiring the pockmarks I’d left, before biting her shoulder so she trembled. “And I’m going to need more of this,” I dropped the towel to expose one of her breasts, lapping at a nipple briefly, “this,” my hand dipped between her thighs to find her still wet and dewy and she mewled in pleasure, “and this,” I kissed her again deeply, until I was satisfied that she couldn’t think straight, “to help me do it.” I loved that look on her face. She’d been screaming literally ten minutes ago and now she blushed bright red as if I hadn’t just had my face buried between her silky thighs. I dressed her in one of my practice shirts and shorts—far too big for her, but they would do for now— and merely rolled my eyes at her protests against leaving her drenched underwear behind. “They’ll only get in the way.” Zipping up my jacket, I took her hand to lead her firmly from the locker room. Immediately, the press was all over us. Camera bulbs flashed and questions flew, but I couldn’t care less. I had one thing on my mind as I shoved through them, and that was getting Sadie to where I could have her all to myself. I shoved my fucking temper down as we made our way out of the building and to the waiting car before I shoved her inside. When I joined her, it was blissfully silent. Sadie just stared at me, her eyes wide. “We’re going to be all over the papers tomorrow. Again.”

The side of my mouth kicked up as I tugged her into my lap. There went that flush again. “Sweet, the way you were screaming, I don’t think we’re going to need a fucking news bulletin to inform on what we were doing.” She was cute, hair still damp, face flushed. “That was your fault.” She tried to pluck up a little courage now. “I just came to talk and you…you—” “Fucked the bejeesus out of you.” I cut her off curtly. “Consider it the second of many.” Leaning forward, I shifted her to reach down and pull a bottle of champagne Riley had thoughtfully placed in the cooler in anticipation of my victory. He had never doubted me, at least. “I think next time I’m going to pour this all over you and lick it off so you’re all sticky sweet. Then you’re going to bounce on this dick until you can’t see straight. What do you have to say to that, Miss Warner?” I’d never get tired of that shocked, affronted look on her face. Like she didn’t love it. That particular time, however, her expression was edged with a bit of mischief. A bit of the new, darkly sexy Sadie that threatened to make me ruin the expensive limo’s interior. “Can I get started ‘winding you down’ now, then?” Before I could answer, she’d already slipped to her knees between my legs on the floor of the car, and nimble fingers were reaching for my very interested cock. By the time she took me in her mouth, every single protest had slipped my mind. Fuck the paparazzi. Fuck the driver, who was probably going to have some damn interesting stories to tell his wife. All that mattered was the gorgeous vixen between my legs and how, inexplicably, I couldn’t get enough of her.


I had no idea what had come over me. Well, I suppose that wasn’t exactly true. Griffin had come over me. When he was around, my brain tended to scramble and my body overheated. Everything I had been taught about holding out, how to be ladylike and let a man come to you…all that was forgotten. I wanted him, every part of him. His kiss, the musky taste of his skin, how helpless he made me feel… it was like a drug. At least until I recovered my head a bit. The salty, male taste of him was still in my mouth as we slid out of the car in front of a high-rise apartment building in downtown. I stared up at it, slightly awed as I took in the glistening column of crystal and steel. I’d seen the building going up over the past few years and thought about how luxurious it must be. It was a multi-billion-dollar number funded by one of the mot moneyed architects in the city. And, apparently, Griffin lived on the top floor. “Sweet Sadie.” He breathed against my neck as I gazed up at the structure in awe. “Let’s get you comfortable upstairs.” Knowing Griffin, comfortable might mean anything from flat on my back to actually sleeping. It had been a long day, but the wanton part of me hoped that he wasn’t done with me just yet. I didn’t know quite what to say on the way upstairs in the elevator, and Griffin must have noticed my quiet. One of his muscular arms wound around my waist to pull me close as he tipped my face up to look at him. Why I was so suddenly bashful, I didn’t know. I’d had the man’s cock all but jammed down my throat less than ten minutes ago and now I didn’t know what to say? In all honestly, I was still reeling from our encounter in the locker room. “Something the matter?” Slowly, I shook my head, embarrassed to feel my cheeks flushing. Had I suddenly become bipolar? I went from being hot for the man to being embarrassed because I wasn’t sure how to feel at all. “I just…well…I…” I swallowed thickly, trying to figure out if there was any way to rescue myself from seeming like a complete wanton. “Griffin, I don’t usually…do this. I’m not the type of girl who jumps into bed with guys…who…”

“Blows guys in the back of cars?” If I had been pink before, now I was scarlet. But the look on Griffin’s face somehow wasn’t mocking. If anything at all, it was almost like he was…fond of me. “Sadie, trust me, I know exactly what kind of girl you are.” The elevator dinged on the top floor and before I could step out, Griffin wrapped his arms around my waist, lifting me into the air. I had to admit, even though I didn’t want to be, I was impressed. The masculine way the man threw me around was more than a little gratifying for my sex drive—and it also unleashed a part of me that made me feel more woman than any man I’d ever been with before. “So…what kind of girl am I?” I managed, as he carried me down a long hall with plush red carpet and only three single doors. His was the last one, and he shifted me to one arm for long enough for him to unlock it. When he opened it, he carried me in without hesitation to set me on the first available flat surface— which happened to be a marble countertop in the foyer. My seat placed me at about eye level with him so he could cup my face, brushing his thumb over already kiss-swollen lips. When he spoke, his green eyes burned into mine. “You’re mine.” He took me right there, with little pretense, if any at all. Griffin took a handful of my hair, pulling my neck taut in a motion that sent butterflies of anticipation winging through my system. He kissed and bit his way down he column of my neck until I was all but trembling with want for him. And then, with a complete lack of ceremony, he shucked the shorts down my legs, leaving me naked on his counter from the waist down. It didn’t take much rearranging for him to free his own erection from his pants, and when he pushed into me, I was wet and willing. I wondered if it was within Griffin’s capacity to be gentle during sex. Every one of the few guys I’d been with before him held me close and told me how beautiful they thought I was. There was a lot of lovemaking, caressing and intimacy. Griffin’s brand of loving was hard, almost punishing. Each thrust of his hips against mine drove my ass into the counter and cleaved deep enough to make me gasp. It was so delicious, so hot and depraved that I barely had a split second to wonder if it was right or not. Griffin made me forget all the preconceived notions I had about sex until I was forced to just feel. Within minutes, I was clawing at him, moaning his name, all but begging him for release as he pounded me into the surface, and when he gave it to me, I screamed. It was like I was coming apart and there was nothing I could do but let it happen and trust him not to drop me. We moved to the couch after that, and I lost what little clothing I had left. Under the pretense of

wanting to “look at me,” Griffin had me stretch out on top of him and let his hands roam where they would. Of course, that was the point at which the shy, demure, uptight part of me left and I just let the man do whatever he damn well pleased. The roaming hands turned to massaging, caressing, devastating motions with fingers and mouth and then he was inside me again. Too many times to count. Despite having just won one of the fiercest MMA matches in the entire goddamn country, the man seemed to have unlimited energy reserves. If this was his winding down, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to handle whatever his winding up would be. By the time he finally gave me a moment to gather my wits, I was thoroughly exhausted. Stretched out over the completely desecrated sheets of his large bed, I tried to catch my breath as he sat at the edge of the mattress, gloriously nude. I waited for prude Sadie to return but it was more than a little difficult when Griffin sat literally inches away from me, looking good enough to eat. I should have pulled the blankets over myself and slunk to the corner of the bed in shame. Instead, I raised my head and bit at the decadent curve of the man’s ass. Griffin jumped slightly, looking over his shoulder at me with a widening smirk. “Are you asking for more, sweet Sadie? Or can you still stand?” I think I might have blushed less than was normal—for me, anyway. “I…could use a drink,” I finally managed, wondering what on earth Stella would say if she heard the mincemeat I’d made of my vocal cords. Reaching down in a surprisingly tender gesture, Griffin smoothed a hank of blonde from my cheek, his eyes searching mine. “Booze or no?” That drew a soft laugh from me. “Booze. Please.” “You got it.” With that, he rose from the bed to stride, still completely naked, from the room. Leaving me alone for the first time in several hours. God, what was I getting myself into? After he was gone, I did take the luxury of covering myself with the sheets as I stretched out over the man’s bed, my mind a whirl of activity. What had changed? How had I gone from a woman who was excited to leave her apartment in the morning to this strange dare devil pining for one of the most dangerous and desired men in the world. I was literally no one. One day I was planning to be an influential journalist, but just now, compared

with any of the women in the world Griffin could have, I seemed pretty low on the totem pole. And yet here I was. There I had been, in the locker room, ready to throw myself at his feet, willing to do almost anything to simply be with him again. The frightening part of it all was that the feeling wasn’t entirely sexual. Griffin was dangerous. I knew that. But suddenly, what people thought of him didn’t seem as important as how he appeared to me. The worst thing he’d visited on my person was a sore throat and rubbery legs. He was a force of nature, to be sure, but I hadn’t seen him lash out at innocent people or hit women. He’d hit the photographer the night I interviewed him, but in hindsight, the man had gotten in his personal space in a big way. Not to mention mine. As horrified as I’d been to watch him punch another man, and to see said man go down under the force of that incredible punch, there had been something inside me that was secretly, horrifyingly, thrilled. That someone cared enough about me to defend me like that. Though, in Griffin’s case, it wouldn’t be genuine caring. I was his flavor of the week, month, whatever you wanted to call it. Someone touching or mocking me was like impugning upon his masculinity. Of course he would react. The thought made my stomach turn slightly. How many women had there been in the VIP section with me at the match? Fifteen? Twenty? And that was only one of the VIP sections in the arena. Who knew how many other women were clamoring after him? The man was a hot commodity. And I just happened to be the lucky one. I sighed, running hands through my mussed hair. For all that Griffin could make me forget my inhibitions in bed, the moment the intimacy ended, all the problems started. At least for me. “You look like someone just pissed in your soup.” My head jerked up as Griffin edged back into the room carrying two glasses of what looked like whiskey. Two weeks ago, I would have thought the man was incomparably crass. Now I just found myself suppressing a laugh at the particular way he had of phrasing things.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” I arched a brow at him, clutching the sheet to my bare breasts in a way that made him scowl in disappointment. I tried to keep my gaze above his shoulders but, good Lord, the man had a magnificent body. And he was half hard to boot. He strutted across the room, past the foot of the bed, and towards the balcony off the master suite. “It means,” his eyes gleamed dangerously, “that you should get your sweet ass over here to get your drink and forget about what ever’s bothering you.” I gave him a flat look. “You want me to come stand in your window, stark naked?” The smile he gave me was positively wicked. “No. I want you to come stand on my balcony stark naked. And drink with me.” I stared at him. This man was absolutely out of his mind—and he had my goddamn drink. “Come on.” Shifting both glasses dexterously to one hand, he opened the balcony door to let in a rush of cool night air that made me shiver as the tips of my breasts perked up. “You wanted your drink, here it is.” He slipped halfway out of the door and I groaned, shaking my head. “I’m going to go get water from the kitchen.” “Sadie, you don’t get that ass right out here in five seconds, I’ll tan it so hard you won’t walk for a week.” Somehow, the words both terrified and aroused the hell out of me. I didn’t doubt that he was capable of such a thing. Indeed, a man like Griffin probably had a drawer where he kept his bullwhip. I took a moment to consider. We were on the thirtieth floor in one of the tallest buildings in the city, and none of the neighboring high rises were so tall. The chances of anyone seeing me were relatively slim, and Griffin obviously didn’t give one good goddamn. This was probably a nightly routine for him. If I were in my right mind, I never would have done it, but it was long established that Griffin made me do crazy things. Taking a deep breath, I reluctantly left the sheet and hurried out onto the balcony to join him. For a moment, I found myself totally awestruck. The view was incredible. I could see the entire city and to the coast beyond, thousands of tiny lights beneath us in the darkness, each and every one representing the life of someone different. “Not so bad, right?” I inhaled sharply as Griffin breathed against my neck before his mouth brushed over my shoulder hotly. While I’d been admiring the view, he came up behind me, one arm encircling my waist to offer me my drink. As he did so, the chill glass brushed the underside of my breast and I

shivered before taking it. “Cold?” His voice was rough and, despite all of the evening’s ventures, no less hungry than when I’d first seen him in the locker room. A breathless laugh escaped me before I sipped at my whiskey, letting the liquor burn its way down my gullet gratefully. “Aren’t men supposed to have a threshold or something?” “No man in his right fucking mind thinks of thresholds when he sees you, Sadie.” He nipped at my neck again and I turned to face him before my knees could turn to complete mush. Griffin was looking down at me with that passive, dangerous expression of his that warned that I was about to find myself in a compromising position or else defending my ideals. My lips quirked slightly. “Do you tell that to all your lovely conquests?” I clinked my glass against his before taking another drink. My statement was meant to be casual but I couldn’t help the butterflies that winged through my stomach at my own boldness. “I’m sure they appreciate it.” I didn’t let myself look at Griffin’s reaction. That would have been too much. Instead, I turned back to the lovely view as I leaned against the railing of the balcony. I didn’t need to be looking at him to feel the daggers he glared at the back of my head. “What is that supposed to mean?” He fired my own words back at me in a low snarl and I steeled myself. I had always been a rational person and I wasn’t about to start with the delusions now, despite whatever confusion Griffin made me feel. “Griffin, I know what kind of man you are. You’re not the settle down and get married type. You’ve got a different woman in every major city over the globe and you leave a string of broken hearts in your wake. You don’t have to worry about breaking mine.” For a moment, a tense silence hung between us and I let my drink fill it. I took a long swallow that warmed my stomach but did nothing to help steady it. I didn’t think I’d ever been so nervous in my life. Through job interviews, examinations, and everything else under the sun, I kept my cool. And now, here I was, on pins and needles for a man I knew would only hurt me. “Sadie…look. I know I’m no fucking saint.” Griffin’s arms rested on the balcony on either side of me, the heat of his body caging me in. A he spoke, his voice was low and rough, but not with desire. Something else. Almost as if he was having trouble forming the words. “I fight for a living. I’m a thug and I’m not good with all that intellectual crap. But I care about you…and not just a passing fuck care.” High, nervous laughter escaped me. “Griffin, you don’t have to—” “Yes.” He cut me off curtly, his tone firm. “Yes, I fucking do. Sadie…when I was flailing around in the goddamn ring…when I was losing, it was because I was pissed. Pissed at you.”

The statement was enough to make me whirl, my eyes wide. “At me? What the hell did I do?” “You…you didn’t fucking want me.” Griffin ground out the words almost as if his teeth were clenched, his green eyes bright with some unreadable emotion. “I wanted you…more than anything else in the fucking cosmos I want you, and when you pulled out that ‘professional’ bullshit…God, it messed me up.” I stared at him, somewhere between shocked and confused. “I couldn’t train right…couldn’t think straight. There was only you. And then, when I saw you in the VIP section, when I was about to get my ass handed to me and I saw that you were watching…you can bet your sweet ass I knocked Desmond out. Like a fucking light.” His gaze softened slightly as he cupped my face, stroking over my jaw lightly. “I didn’t give two shits about any of the other women there. I can’t…even if it’s as out of character for me as it is for you to give back-seat blowjobs.” I flushed, at a complete loss for words. Was Griffin Webb trying to tell me that he had feelings for me? Like actual, honest-to-god human emotions? Lust was inherent of course, but the way he looked at me when he said I helped him win the match… His expression was so earnest that I was inclined to believe him. I wanted to believe him. “You’re pretty fucking good at those by the way.” I was breathless when I answered him. “What?” His gorgeous mouth quirked in a smirk. “Blowjobs.” “Griffin!” I smacked a hand over his mouth to keep him from spewing delicious filth. He was turning me into a degenerate for God’s sake. “Hush.” In response, he wrapped an arm around my waist and left both of our glasses outside to drag me into back into the bedroom. He tossed me onto the bed and was on top of me before I could escape. Not that I really wanted to. How was the man so consistently hard? When he slipped inside of me, I groaned at the sensation. I didn’t think anything had ever felt so right. “Sadie,” he growled darkly against my ear, one hand curling firmly into my thigh. “Say it again.” “What?” I gasped, almost delirious before the man had even started moving.

“My name.” He kissed me, uttering his next demand against my mouth. “Say my name.” As if I could refuse him. “Griffin.”


“What happened to your face?” Much later, I lay beside him, stroking over his chest leisurely. I reached up to touch the freshly stitched laceration on his left cheek and, immediately, he frowned deeply. Catching my hand, Griffin returned it to his chest, his brow knitted into wrinkles of displeasure. “Accident,” he finally grunted, his eyes sliding across briefly before he turned onto his side to look at me, his gaze searching my face. “What happened here?” He touched a small, old scar at the junction of my neck and shoulder, rubbing it almost fondly and sending an electric thrill through me. I covered the imperfection self-consciously. “I, uh…fell out of a tree. When I was fourteen. Had to get stitches.” Griffin smiled—actually smiled—at my profession. And if the man was gorgeous when he scowled, when he smiled, he was breathtaking. “Sadie climbs trees?” I rolled my eyes, hiding my own smile. “Climbed. Past tense.” “So was there some point in your extremely uptight life that you climbed trees, jumped off cliffs, fucked foreign guys—” “I have never fucked a foreign guy.” I immediately nipped that in the bud. “And the tallest thing I’ve ever jumped off is a high diving board.” “That’s a damn shame,” he murmured, brushing my hand away from my scar so he could speak against it. “There’s this spot in the Greek Isles that’s pretty fucking primo for cliff diving. Clear blue waters, great seafood, nice little cottage with a big bed and an amazing view…” “Even more amazing than your apartment?” I inquired skeptically. “Way more. But if I take you, you gotta jump.” I laughed softly. “I am not jumping off any cliffs, Griffin.”

He was silent for so long after my profession that part of me suspected that he’d finally fallen asleep. “You know, Sadie…you’ll never get anywhere if you don’t jump.” His words were so low that I could have missed them, but the impact couldn’t have been more poignant if he’d screamed them in my ear. Very soon afterward, Griffin did fall asleep. He snored softly against my shoulder, an arm slung about my waist, and I was alone with some very intimidating thoughts. What had I ever really done with my life? I’d always known that I wanted to be a writer, to be a reporter in journalism. But, there had been a time when I’d imagined that it might take me all over the world. I’d write about my travels and live the dream of seeing every country on the globe. It would be the ultimate adventure. But somewhere along the way, I’d given up on it. It was safer, I’d decided, to stay in the city. To work my way up the ladder at an already established publication. It would mean more in this dog-eat-dog world. I had, after all, always been the safe one. The calm one. The level headed one. Well, now I was the one in bed with Griffin Webb, worried that I was very possibly falling for him.


I didn’t know how long I slept. All I knew was that I couldn’t remember the last time I slept so well. I didn’t wake up once. I didn’t worry about a fight, or training, or getting up the next morning. Riley knew I would be fine. I usually disappeared for a few days after matches to unwind—with women, booze, or whatever else caught my fancy. But this time was different. I didn’t really want to drink. I didn’t want to eat all the foods that had been denied to me in the week leading up to the match. I didn’t want to contemplate what unnecessary bullshit I was going to buy with my winnings. All I wanted was her. And I had her all fucking evening. For me, who was used to having a woman and making myself scarce, it was pretty fucking strange. But there was nothing else I’d rather be doing. I could barely finish with Sadie before I wanted her again; when I wasn’t inside her, I had to be touching her. Maybe Desmond had hit me harder than I thought, but I found I didn’t really want her out of my sight. Not that night and for maybe a few days after. I embarrassed the shit out of myself trying to explain that to her, I knew. I’d never been good with words—something Riley didn’t hesitate to remind me of anytime he could. It had been a long time since it was words that women wanted from me anyway. And Sadie didn’t want them. Didn’t expect them. But I sure as hell gave them to her. Staked my claim. I’d already made up my mind that no other man was going to touch her for as long as I was around. And I planned on staying around for a long fucking time. When I woke around four in the morning, she was still curled in my arms, sound asleep. It was the first time I’d ever seen her vulnerable, not on her guard. Not waiting for the world to crash down around her ears. Sadie put up a strong front, but it was pretty obvious that she was feeling the bite of loneliness, and I

didn’t think that just because the sex was goddamned amazing. She was good at her job. Whatever I had done to possibly derail her, that remained the case. She was dedicated, she was smart, she was gorgeous…and no man had ever treated her the way she needed to be treated. That needed to be resolved. Just as soon as I could convince her to come out of that shell she encased herself in. I liked that little smile that she tried to hide whenever she was excited. When I’d accelerated the car, when I grabbed her in the locker room, when I made her show her delicious, bare body to the world. Sadie deserved to smile like that all the time. And I would make sure she did—even if she dragged her feet a little. I stroked a few strands of hair from her face, taking in her pert, soft mouth and the soft snuffling noises she made when she slept. Her body was warm and soft, pockmarked from all the biting and sucking I’d been doing for the past five or six hours. I thought about waking her up to do more of said biting and sucking, but she needed her rest, and I was fucking starving. As I was trying to ease my way from around her, my phone buzzed lowly on the bedside table. Looking over at it, I scowled. Who the hell would be calling me at fucking four in the morning? After a match? If they didn’t know my schedule, it couldn’t be that important, so I left it. Sliding out from under Sadie, I made my way to the kitchen to devour the remains of a steak sandwich I still had from yesterday. As I downed it, there was a low thud from across the living room that made me tense. I forgot my sandwich for a second and left the kitchen to take a look and found the second cell that Riley had given me for business vibrating against the carpet. I crouched down to pick it up, wondering what the old man could have to say to me at the ass crack of dawn. When I took a look at the number scrolling across the screen, however, I frowned. Unknown. No one had this number, save Riley and my publicist. For a long moment, I stared down at the phone in my hand, wondering whether or not to answer. After one of the best evenings of my life, I had a feeling that a monumental amount of bullshit was about to fuck things up. Ultimately, I decided not to answer, but the phone was barely silent in my hand for a full minute before it buzzed with a message notification. I opened it without hesitating.

We got a score to settle, Webb. Get me my money by dawn, or I cut up more than your pretty fucking face. God-fucking-dammit. How I’d figured Ivan would be satisfied with just getting in a solid hit was beyond me. He’d been after me for years, getting more and more aggressive. He’d started doping in my gym and was going after the kids no matter what I said, and it was clear that I couldn’t escape my bad decisions by just fighting my way through them. And now, Sadie was involved. I didn’t know how much Ivan knew, but if he caught wind that there was anything he could use against me…I didn’t want to think about it. He’d already tried to rile me up using Ross, and luckily enough for me, the kid wasn’t as stupid as I’d been. But Sadie…all she knew about was the fighting in the cage. She didn’t know about all the gambling, juicing, and violence that went on behind the scenes. And I didn’t want her exposed to it. My mouth pressed into a tight line, I tossed the phone back onto the table before sinking onto the couch. I was willing to do just about anything to protect Sadie. Anything. Running a hand over my jaw, I fingered the place where Ivan’s goons had sliced me. The way Sadie had looked at me, concern in her expression, when she asked what happened to me…it had almost killed me. What was I supposed to tell her? That I was the criminal that she thought I was? She had freaked the hell out just seeing me punch a man. I wasn’t about to ruin my chances any more than I already had. She didn’t need to know. I was protecting her by keeping details like this from her. My chest tight, I made my way back to the bedroom, surprised to find Sadie half awake. She turned over to look at me with those sleepy honey eyes of hers, yawning wide. “Griffin?” I was immediately at her side, perching at the edge of the bed to rub a hand indulgently over her bare shoulder. Christ, her skin was like silk. “I’m here, sweet thing.” Sadie’s eyes fluttered shut as she fell halfway back into sleep. “Your phone’s…your phone’s been ringing.” With that, she slipped away, rolling onto her side to expose one gorgeous breast as her breathing became regular and even.

Lucky for me. She wasn’t awake to see my fucking livid expression. Ivan just wasn’t going to give up, was he? Not until I had effectively scared him off or his ass was six feet under. And I knew Ivan didn’t scare easy. I heaved a breath, staring down at the sleeping woman in my bed. When was the last time I let a woman stay the entire night? I could barely remember. While I had no problem sharing my body, I tended not to be so generous with my space. But, somehow, I hoped Sadie stuck around until I got back. I dressed quickly, and all in black. With any luck, I could do what I had to do and be back before she woke up. Then we could continue celebrating for the rest of the evening without Ivan breathing down my goddamn neck. Before I left the apartment, I scribbled a quick note in case my errand took me longer than I thought, and then, with one last indulgent look at her, I slipped away. And once I left the safety of the penthouse, I uncaged my rage.


When I awoke the next morning, the first thing I did was reach for Griffin. It was instinctive. I reached towards his side of the bed, looking for the solid warmth that was a body honed by years of defensive training. And found nothing. In a split second, my eyes snapped open and I remembered where I was, everything that had happened the previous day. Andrew giving me a press pass to Griffin’s fight, my attending and finding myself so righteously drawn to him that I could barely think straight…and everything that came afterward. Rolling over onto my back, I stared at the ceiling for a long moment as thoughts jumbled together in my head. Griffin Webb, notorious bad-boy bruiser, media field day, and number two MMA fighter on the planet had admitted that he might have…feelings for me. Out of all the things that might have surprised me in my dealings with Webb, this was by far the most shocking. Of course, I never thought that I’d get tangled up with the man in the first place. When Andrew first gave me my assignment to cover Griffin, I was in it for the story and the story alone. I planned to be catapulted to the forefront of female writers in Grind’s office, and I was going to use Griffin to get me there. I was impervious to his bad-boy allure and convinced that my drive to be the best reporter I could would lead me straight and true. Now, two weeks later, I realized just how naïve I had been. Griffin Webb was an unpredictable force of nature. From the moment I’d seen him sparring in his gym, something in me knew he was trouble. But I craved the man with every part of my being, knowing exactly what he was. That I would just be another in a long line of broken hearts that Griffin left behind him. And then this. Closing my eyes, I remembered the previous night. Standing out on the breezy balcony with him. I wanted you…more than anything else in the fucking cosmos I want you, and when you pulled out that ‘professional’ bullshit…God, it messed me up. Me. For whatever reason, Griffin wanted me. And he seemed pretty goddamned earnest about it. So

earnest that he was inside me half the night and didn’t make up some excuse for me to leave his apartment before sunrise. The question was, where had he gone now? With a sigh, I rolled over onto my stomach to glance at the alarm clock on the bedside table. The red fluorescent numbers read around ten thirty in the morning. I never slept in so late. Then again, I usually didn’t spend the entire night getting my brains screwed out either. The realization simultaneously mortified and warmed me, making my cheeks flush lightly. As I gathered the sheets to my bare chest, sitting upright, I spied something else on the bedside table. A folded piece of paper marked with my name. Pursing my lips in curiosity, I reached over to pluck the paper from the table with my fingertips and opened the note. Sweet Sadie, Make yourself at home. There’s stuff in the fridge to make breakfast, if that’s your thing. I’ve got an errand to run. Back in a few hours. Griffin P.S. – Don’t put any clothes on. I’ll need you when I get back. His demand only made my cheeks redden further. I knew Griffin far too well to assume he might not know what effect he had on women. The fact of the matter was that the man knew exactly what he did to the fairer sex—me more than most. Usually, I wouldn’t even walk around my own house naked. I always wore a robe, a t-shirt, something to cover my bareness. But Griffin’s request made me bold. And so, with almost no hesitation, I rose from the bed without a stitch of clothing on, a slight smile curving my lips. He wanted me. Me. I might be completely flummoxed as to why, but after a good night’s sleep in the man’s bed and a veritable welcome mat into his home, I wasn’t about to look a gift horse in the mouth. Tentatively, I made my way towards the bedroom door. In the light of day, I could now see just how huge the apartment was. Mine could fit in this monster at least three times over—and yet Griffin somehow found a use for all the space. Apart from finding different locations to screw me in, that was. Aside from the high ceilinged, minimalistic bedroom, there was also a dusty study, an extra bathroom, a space that had been outfitted as a home gym, and then, of course, there was the main entryway, which was split into a living,

dining, and kitchen area. All in all, probably over two thousand square feet of space for a single man. I could only imagine what they were paying him to put his neck on the line. Shivering slightly at the cool temperature, I searched for a thermostat to turn up before venturing to the pristine kitchen. It was so clean that I had to wonder if Griffin ever cooked in it at all. When I opened the fridge, the package of bacon there was untouched, which led me to think that he might have bought it just for me. I should be so lucky. As I wasn’t so eager to have bacon grease singe my bare skin, I opted to microwave my breakfast, settling for oatmeal, bacon, and some surprisingly posh coffee. For the mouth he had on him, Griffin had some pretty expensive tastes. As I sipped on my blue mountain and munched on a piece of bacon, I wandered into the living room. There were a number of leather sofas that made me hesitate to take a seat, but I ultimately sank down onto a love seat with a sigh at the cool temperature of the leather against my bare skin. What would happen, I wondered, if Griffin walked in right that minute? Would he be pissed that I was bare-assed naked on his expensive leather? Somehow, I doubted it. Griffin Webb was the kind of man who liked to ruin the leather and ask questions later. The notion had a small smile curving my lips as I reached for the remote to the gleaming fifty-two-inch plasma TV. It was nice, I had to admit, to see what pleasures high living could bring. In the space of two weeks I’d gone from thinking there was no way violence could be the answer to any issue in the cosmos to actually admiring a man who made his living from just that. More than admiring… Before I could follow that train of thought, I switched on the TV to distract myself. As it was Friday and I had a whole forty-eight hours before I had to submit the details of the fight to my boss to finish the article, there was little I had to do other than sit back and relax for a few hours. I would wait until Griffin got back at the very least, and then do my best to make time to finish my article. At least, that was the plan. When Griffin was involved, I found that I seldom stuck to such plans. I wasn’t much of a TV watcher—I was usually too absorbed in my work—but well-sexed and well rested, I found myself flipping comfortably through channels. There were a few action movies, almost mind-blowing in the high resolution of Griffin’s TV, a number of nature documentaries, and the usual plethora of news stations. I was on the cusp of turning back to a showing of Lethal Weapon Three when a very familiar pair of green eyes caught my attention. Pausing, I flipped back through channels until I found the city news station. A sharp cry of shock escaped me.

Griffin. Griffin was on television! And he wasn’t knocking a man out in a ring or being heralded as one of the world’s top fighters by reporters. He was being led towards a waiting police car. In handcuffs. For a moment, I couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t see or hear anything except the garbled information the reporter kept repeating. “Griffin Webb, world-renown MMA champion, being taken into custody on suspicion of murder. Webb cannot provide an alibi for his whereabouts around four this morning, when a murder was committed in the lower west side. Police are said to have found Webb leaving the scene with blood on his hands.” Jesus. The police thought Griffin had…murdered someone? He couldn’t have! It was impossible! Though I’d been half asleep when he left me earlier that morning, I remembered him clearly telling me that he had an errand to run. That he’d be back soon. All at once, my blood went cold. What kind of errand needed to be run in the wee small hours of the morning? And why couldn’t he take me with him if he needed me so badly. I couldn’t tear my eyes from the TV. Murder. This was bigger than any bar fight or tussle over a bimbo blonde. If Griffin had killed someone in cold blood, there would be major consequences I couldn’t even begin to fathom. I should have run for the hills. It would have been the smart thing to do, to run from the man, all he made me feel, and all the trouble he’d brought into my life. We’d had sex a few times, and he’d admitted that he had feelings for me. With a man like Griffin, who knew if what he said was true or not. If he’d ever meant to return to me at all. When I’d first gotten involved with him, I knew letting the man into my heart and bed would only bring me grief. But here, now, at the eleventh hour, even though every fiber of my being screamed at me to extricate myself, all I wanted to do was see him.

And nothing on heaven or earth was going to stop me. I was up off the sofa in a trice, bolting back towards the bedroom, my breakfast completely forgotten. It took me a full minute of searching through the mussed sheets to realize that I didn’t have any of my clothes with me. Last night, I remembered, Griffin had given me some of his clothes to wear home from the arena. I decided quickly to wear said clothes to a taxi, run back home to my apartment to change—I doubted they’d let me into a courthouse dressed as I was—and then do my best to get in and see Griffin before something unmentionable happened. Somehow, I managed to make it back to my apartment, hop in the shower and change, and be back on my way downtown within half an hour. While I did so, I didn’t dare turn on the radio or television. I was too terrified of what I might hear. That Griffin was already in jail, the full list of charges…and I didn’t know if I was quite ready for all that. After all, who was I? A magazine writer who happened to get a little too wrapped up in her story. In truth, I hadn’t really a leg to stand on. I wasn’t related to the man and we hadn’t even begun to discuss titles. I was pretty certain that if I professed I was Griffin’s girlfriend, I’d be laughed out of the damn courthouse. Or jail. Wherever he was. The place turned out to be a precinct, and when I arrived there, I could hardly see through the thick throng of reporters. My own phone was buzzing off the hook with calls from my boss and the office, no doubt urging me to use my personal in with Griffin to get the latest scoop. But I ignored them all. Instead, I parked my car in the first free space I saw and pressed through the crowd up towards the front door of the precinct. As usual, when Griffin was involved, there were a number of people guarding the entrance. Fortunately for me, they were more concentrated on keeping a crowd from getting in than a single person, and I managed to slip through the cracks. The precinct itself was chaos. Between dealing with the other people they had in custody and the hounds chopping at the bit for a piece of Griffin’s story, cops were running around like chickens with their heads off. Which gave me an opportunity to try to find someone I knew. Carefully, I made my way past the front desk, searching the waiting room for a familiar face. Griffin, I assumed, was in a cell, but if he was here, that meant Riley had to be here, as well as whatever lawyer they had representing Griffin. And I knew Riley well enough. Though it was, indeed, a madhouse, it didn’t take me longer than ten minutes to locate the man, and I’d never seen him looking so angry. He was in some high-ranking official’s office, and his voice carried onto the floor as he yelled himself hoarse at the man. I could barely see through the frosted glass pane, but I assumed their dialogue wasn’t going very well.

Swallowing thickly, I reminded myself that I just needed to speak with Riley to see Griffin and I straightened my backbone. I could do this. If I hadn’t been particularly brave my entire life, I could do this one thing. Steeling myself, I waited for Riley to finish railing at the police captain before the door finally burst open and the trainer stomped out looking absolutely livid. He was so intent on his rampage that he almost ran me over. “Riley!” I managed, my tone only slightly shaky. The man’s gaze jerked to me and I winced at the fire in it as he glared in my direction. “I need to see Griffin. Please.” I didn’t think my tone had ever sounded so plaintive in my entire life. His trainer only grunted, his expression softening the slightest bit. “You’ll have to wait like everyone else. They’re going to put him before a judge to hear the formal charges and set bail.” My stomach twisted in trepidation. “What…” I forced the words from my mouth before I could lose my courage. “What happened?” At that, Riley gave me an incredulous look, his brows rising towards his hairline. A bark of laughter escaped him as he shook his head slowly, moving swiftly past me. “Let him tell you himself, sweetheart.” And with that, the man stalked towards the exit, leaving me completely nonplussed. He’d just shrugged me off as if it were nothing—as if I were nothing. I felt my face reddening in shame as I remembered that I was one in veritable leagues of women Griffin dealt with—and a good number of them were probably wondering what happened to their free meal ticket. But none of them were here, in the police precinct, willing to risk everything for a few words with him, were they? Now that the cards had been laid on the table, I didn’t see a single skank who’d been at the arena the previous night looking for Griffin when he needed her most. Only me. Maybe I was crazy, but some small, oft-ignored part of me hoped not.


I rushed to the hearing. It was public, and cameras were everywhere, so I could hardly squeeze into the courtroom, but once I did, there he was. Standing down in front of the judge with his lawyer by his

side, that luscious mouth of his set into a firm line. Though it had only been hours since I’d last seen him, it could have been days. My traitorous heart leapt. The hearing was quick and dirty. Griffin was being charged with one count of manslaughter in the first degree, and the only words he spoke were to declare himself not guilty. The stern-faced judge set bail at a cool million dollars, which Riley immediately moved to pay. It was all over so quickly my head spun, and then I was being shoved along tides of people back out of the courthouse and down the front steps. I lingered as much as I could, trying to catch another glimpse of Griffin, but there were far too many people. In the end, I just settled for waiting at the bottom of the steps, twisting my hands together nervously. This was insane. I’d come to Griffin to do a story and now I was waiting for an accused murderer in front of a courthouse. Things had spun out of control so fast it was a wonder my head wasn’t on backwards. After what seemed like ages, Griffin finally came down the courthouse steps. Riley and his lawyer helped shield him from the profusion of flashing cameras, and I could tell by the tight set of his jaw that he ached to lash out. But he didn’t. There was no violence, other than the sharp lash of his voice when he spat, “No fucking comment,” repeatedly. I opened my mouth to call his name, but found nothing would come out. Goddamn it, of all the times in the world to lose my gall, this had to take the cake. He would pass me, and I would probably lose him forever. “Griffin!” I managed one good shout just before Griffin, Riley, and the lawyer reached the waiting Mercedes and the fighter’s head whipped around as if on a cord. His green eyes found mine almost immediately and his gaze hardened as the media set their sights on me. “Move!” The command was barked with so much rancor that, almost immediately, most of the reporters made a path as Griffin shoved his way towards me. Without a word, he reached out and took my hand, jerking me to him before moving back to the car. Within a minute, we were safely inside, the tinted windows rolled up as silence enveloped us. Riley and the lawyer closed us in before taking their leave, and as the car pulled off, Griffin and I were its only occupants. And the quiet hung thickly. All morning long, all I’d wanted was to speak with Griffin, and now that I’d finally confronted him, I wasn’t sure what to say. Did I demand an explanation? Ask if he was okay? Did I have any authority

to do any of that? Ultimately, I could only stare at him, feeling somehow lost in all of this. Griffin stared steadily out of the window for what seemed like an eternity before a long breath finally left him. “Sadie.” When he spoke, his voice was gruffer than usual. “I know what this looks like, and it’s not what you think.” That was what he had to say to me after all this? Not that he wasn’t a murderer, or that this was all some kind of sick mistake. That it wasn’t what it looked like? “What do I think?” The words finally left me in a weak whisper. I wanted to know exactly what his assumptions were at this point. I knew damn well where mine were. “That this is a mistake.” He replied almost immediately, his tone surprisingly level as his green gaze rose to stare at me. “That I’m a fucking criminal and you’re in way over your head.” Surprisingly astute of him, considering the circumstances. It was too bad that I was still having difficulties coming up with what I was supposed to say. In a surprisingly tender gesture, Griffin reached up to cup my chin, his thumb running over my mouth so involuntary shivers raced through me. The man had to know what kind of effect he had on me. He’d spent the last night stimulating my body in ways I hadn’t even known possible, and now he was exploiting that advantage. “I meant to come back to you this morning. Really, I did.” I found myself jerking my chin from his grip, suddenly angry. “What, you just figured you’d make a pit stop to commit a felony then come straight back to my arms?” His answering scowl was deep. Griffin withdrew, running a hand through his hair agitatedly. “Sadie, there are a few things it’s better you didn’t know about me.” “Like what?” I demanded, my arms crossing over my chest as I glared at him. “Last night, you told me you cared about me. I don’t know whether that had a shred of truth to it or not, but you can’t go from that to hiding something like this from me at the drop of a hat. Jesus Christ,” I exclaimed lowly, “if you get convicted, they could put you away for life, Griffin. Then I’d never see you again.” Had I really just said that? Nice, play-it-safe Sadie was more worried about seeing Griffin Webb again than she was about what he’d actually done? Supposed murder? “They’re not going to put me away,” he growled with no small amount of conviction. The fighter fixed me with that breathtaking green gaze of his again and my heart stuttered in my chest. “I swear to God, they won’t; you have to trust me on this, Sadie.”

I exhaled a shuddering breath. “Trust you on what?” I had no issues with trust. I trusted my friends. I trusted my parents. And I thought I trusted myself. Now, I wasn’t so sure. How could I be when I was seriously considering going along with all of this? The Sadie of a mere few weeks ago, the one who hadn’t yet met Griffin Webb or been drawn into his convoluted world, would be shocked and horrified at the position that I now found myself in. Safe Sadie would have never put herself in a position to be taken advantage of by someone like Griffin Webb, and she certainly wouldn’t have let him into her bed. Safe Sadie would bypass a bruiser like Griffin for a safer man. A less entertaining man, one who didn’t make her heart race and turn her knees to mush. One who couldn’t make her come so hard she almost forgot to breathe. “Trust that I can handle this.” His reply was no clearer than what he asked of me. I still didn’t know what happened between the time he’d left me and that moment. All I knew was that he was asking me to trust him when I had little, if any, reason to. Safe Sadie would have run for the hills screaming. But the thing was, I’d probably stopped listening to safe Sadie quite a while ago. Slowly, I found myself nodding. Though it was against my better judgment, there was something steady in Griffin’s striking green gaze. Something that appealed to me. He might be a bruiser, and he might have a history of conflict, but he could handle himself. Or, at least, I’d have to trust that he could. To my surprise, Griffin’s expression softened at my acceptance. He replaced his hand on my jaw, stroking gently, and for a moment, I saw a gleam of something strange in his gaze. Something I didn’t think I’d ever seen before in all the thousands of pictures I’d seen of him. But it was gone so quickly, I could have just as easily imagined it. “I appreciate it, Sadie.” Leaning forward, he brushed his lips over mine teasingly and sensation sizzled through every nerve in my body. It was ungodly how even after spending an entire night with the man, he could still have me salivating within seconds. “You don’t know how much.” “Just…be careful, alright?” I managed, my words barely audible as my eyes slid closed. “If you won’t tell me what’s going on, promise you’ll be careful.” This time, when he kissed me, it was sensual, leisurely. Griffin’s tongue slid against the cleft of my lips until I opened for him with a soft moan, and then he set about teasing the ache low in my belly into a burning flame. When he finally drew back, I was all but panting, arching against him like a cat in heat.

“Don’t worry, sweet thing. You’ll be able to keep all eyes and ears on me.” The statement was enough to bring me halfway back to the present, even if my libido was still clamoring to get Griffin’s clothes off right in the back of the car. “What?” That hoarse, low tone, rough with desire? That was also something that would have mortified safe Sadie. I cleared my throat, trying to bring myself back to the conversation at hand. “What are you talking about?” Griffin chuckled softly, his smile genuine. “You and me, we’re going away for a little while.” My eyes widened at his declaration. “What! You’re jumping bail?” Instead of upsetting him, my reaction only seemed to amuse him. Shaking his head in amusement, Griffin grinned. He reached over to squeeze my thigh firmly as he nipped at my neck. “I’m many things, Sadie, but not a common criminal. I’m not fucking jumping bail.” Running a hand through my hair reassuringly, he laid a hot kiss against my throat and I shuddered. “We’re staying relatively close. I just need you to take some time off work, pack a bag, and come with me.” I knew better than to ask where. I doubted he’d tell me. Straightening to clear the aroused fog from my mind, I gazed up at the man. Whenever Griffin was around, my heart pounded, my palms sweated, and my mind became a general mush. But that didn’t mean I wasn’t making my decisions of my own free will. Despite the trouble they’d probably get me into. “Do you really expect me to just drop everything and go with you on a whim?” It was a redundant question. Of all the things Griffin Webb was, coy certainly wasn’t one of them. He smirked. “No. I expect you to take a week to tie up all your loose ends and then come with me. Is there a problem with that, sweet Sadie?” He was killing me with the nicknames. But I had to admit to myself that I didn’t know whether the connotation was positive or negative. Whenever his tongue caressed any title he called me, I couldn’t quite bring myself to be mad at him. All my sharp-tongued self-righteousness had evaporated. And even if it hadn’t, I knew full well that Griffin was an expert at tearing down my defenses. The only thing I could do was scowl at him, hoping to convey my displeasure. What was I supposed to tell the office? That I was eloping with an accused murderer and needed a few days off? That excuse would go over extremely well.

I would have to think of a better one—and fast. If the direction the car was headed in was any indication, we were headed back towards Griffin’s penthouse. And I would hardly have time to straighten out my thoughts there.


I fucked up. I didn’t need anyone to tell me that, it had been pretty damn evident the moment I stood in front of a judge, was accused of murder, and had to pony up a million dollars in bail. I shouldn’t have been so impulsive. I should have thought twice before I acted, but what was done was done now. And I didn’t entirely regret it. What I did regret was how much Sadie was now involved. I haven’t been afraid much in life. After having a father who beat the fuck out of me, a mother who starved me, and trying to make my own way in the world for the first fifteen years of my life, there wasn’t a lot to be frightened of. Even when I first met Riley, a man twice my size with a scowl even scarier than my old man’s, I wasn’t scared. I expected a beating…and could never have imagined what I actually got. Since I stared fighting in professional rings, I didn’t really fear losing. Sure, I didn’t like the idea of losing the notoriety I shed blood and sweat to earn, but the idea that someone was better than me didn’t intimidate me as much as it should. Riley was worried I didn’t care enough about the competition, but at the end of the day, I was in the MMA business because I liked to hit things. I had always liked to hit things. But now, for the first time in a long time, I was scared shitless. Sure, I did what needed to be done, but it had almost cost me Sadie. The look on her face as she saw me come down the courtroom steps…it was enough to make me want to throw up. Fear, worry, shock…I wished to God I’d been able to tell her myself. She had to learn by seeing me on the news, where they could screw all the information and make it sound like I was a goddamned criminal mastermind. The media was always after me; and if they didn’t capture my success, they damn well wanted to be on the front line for my fuck-ups. All week, I lay low as I watched my name smeared over and speculated upon on every channel I tried

to watch. It was too much to even think of going to the gym. The first time I tried after the court date, I was so swamped with media that Riley had to yank me indoors before I cracked a few skulls. The last thing I wanted was to add to the body count, but flashing cameras never helped my goddamned temper The only thing that helped was Sadie. And I hadn’t seen her in seven goddamn days. Sinking into an armchair in front of my TV, I sipped at my glass of scotch and enjoyed the slow burn down my throat. It had been so long since my fist made contact with anything solid that I was all but climbing the walls, but I couldn’t bring myself to use my home gym. I was too wrapped up in what the hell I was doing with someone like Sadie goddamned Warner. It had to be her, didn’t it? Tall, blonde, mouthwatering, and braver than I’d ever imagined. I thought for sure the moment the cops took me that anything I had dreamed about with Sadie was over. She’d never want to speak to me again. Just remembering the prim, tight posture she had the first time we met—she was affronted by what I did and who I was. And now I was a goddamned murderer. Sweet Sadie didn’t need to be hanging around with my kind. But she’d gone and shocked me—which, I had to admit, she did a damn sight more than I expected. She went looking for me. According to Riley, she showed up at the police station before the hearing and followed him to the courthouse. She waited on the steps while I took my walk of shame. I was just trying to figure out why the hell she’d do such a thing. Sadie didn’t go looking for trouble. It wasn’t her thing. Granted, she could be a wild little minx in bed, but that kind of thing had to be coaxed out of her. And yet…she ran into danger looking for me. When I saw her standing at the edge of all those reporters, time fucking stopped. For a split second, I forgot everything. Forgot the million dollars that I had to put down, forgot my encounter from that fucked up morning, and forgot that the entire world was watching. It was just her, that halo of blonde hair, and those gorgeous brown eyes. She was pissed at me.

The moment we were alone in the car together, I could feel it radiating off her in waves. I wanted nothing more than to kiss her senseless, until she forgot that morning and all the bullshit that clouded it, but I knew better. Sadie wanted answers. Answers I couldn’t give without endangering her life. It was easier to go away. I didn’t have another fight for a while, so I let Riley know I was headed out to the beach house and made the arrangements. There, Sadie and I could be alone, and I could work out some of the stress that was driving me up the walls without worrying about media coverage. Christ, I couldn’t believe it had been a week since I saw her. Part of me worried that she’d change her mind, that she’d call and tell me she’d woken up and didn’t want anything to do with my bullshit. So far, the only call I’d gotten from her was to ask me what kind of clothes she should be packing. She got all huffy and called me an ass when I told her clothing was optional, so I assumed that, somehow, I was still on her good side. Closing my eyes, I took the last swallow of scotch as I remembered the last time I’d touched her. That day after the court hearing, I brought her back to the penthouse and kept her in bed for half the day. At first, she protested, demanding to know exactly where we were going, but I eventually wore her down. Unlike most women I’d been with, Sadie didn’t use her wiles to get what she wanted. She used them to try to get her point across. I just had to convince her that her point could wait until a little later. I just needed a week or so to wait for this whole thing to blow over. A week while Riley worked with my lawyer to come up with a good defense. After all, I wasn’t going to stand for being branded a murderer. No, that shit wouldn’t fly with me. Murderers were the ones who pulled shit in cold blood; they did it for the sheer joy of things. What I did didn’t make me happy. Not one goddamned bit. But it needed to be done. If it wasn’t, everything I built was going to come tumbling down, and I’d be damned if I stood by and watched it happen. But I wasn’t going to worry about that. Not now. All I wanted to think about was creamy, smooth thighs, sweet lips, and when I was going to taste them next.

On the table in front of me, my phone buzzed. I stared at it, my eyes narrow. For about two days after I’d been arrested, the damn thing had been ringing off the hook. How so many media monkeys got my number I’d never know, but I swore to God if I had to listen to one more reporter wanting to be the first to break new developments on the “story,” I’d break the goddamned phone. Like hell I was picking up. When it buzzed again, I growled. I was not changing the number again. My hand darted out to grab the damned thing off the table. When I read the message flashing on the screen, I froze. Fuck. Don’t think we’re done, Webb. Though the number was unknown, I didn’t need a name to go with the menace in those five words. Jesus fucking Christ, he wasn’t giving up, was he? I stared at the message for what could only have been a minute, but felt like a goddamned eternity. I had to wait this out. The last time I jumped off my ass to solve this, it only made trouble for me. I was going away with Sadie the next day, and I wasn’t about to fuck that up. For the time being, Ivan could issue all the idle threats his fat, sauerkraut-smelling ass could think of. I wasn’t taking the bait.


It was around eight Saturday morning when I finally made my way to Sadie’s. The media was still hot on my tail so I had no choice but to leave the Jag in the garage and drive something more nondescript. When I pulled up in front of her townhouse, Sadie stared. I was almost too busy looking at those ridiculous curves of hers in a sexy little blue sundress to

realize that she was looking at me in exasperation. “A Porsche, Griffin? Really?” I shrugged, unable to keep from grinning. I loved getting under my sweet Sadie’s skin. “The reporters are looking for a Jag, right?” She rolled her honey colored eyes before opening the door and tossing a small duffel bag into the back seat. When she slid into the leather bucket beside me, I put the car in park long enough to take a handful of her golden waves and tug her towards me. I’d waited entirely too long, and I needed her almost more than I needed to breathe. Before Sadie, I didn’t know exactly how much a man could need a woman. A willing body to take what you could give was one thing, but Sadie didn’t just take it. She reveled in it, discovered her own body as I was discovering it. And that, I couldn’t get enough of. “Griffin…” She didn’t quite catch on until my hands started inching up under her skirt. Squirming, Sadie pulled back to take a breath, her gorgeous face flushed. “The car is still running. We’re in broad daylight.” I groaned, low in my throat, taking hold of her hips to lift her bodily from the seat and into my lap so a soft sound of protest escaped her. “Give me one good reason I can’t drive while I’m in you.” Her face went scarlet and she squirmed in a way I was pretty sure wasn’t all embarrassment at how crass I could be. “Because that’s not a picture I want all over the news tomorrow morning.” That little tremor in her voice was like a drug. One of these days I was going to have to try it, just to see how she reacted. But for now, I’d cut her a bit of slack. “Fine, then.” I nipped at her jaw, my palm grazing the underside of her breast a moment before I set her back in her seat. “Have it your way…for now.” And I truly meant for that moment. We were headed to a recently purchased property that I was almost certain the media hadn’t caught wind of yet—which meant we’d have total privacy. Sadie could have her way for the hour or two it took us to get there, but after we arrived, all bets were off. I had a whole week to make up for, and I didn’t plan on wasting any time. Despite how shitty my week had been, that Saturday was bright, warm, and gorgeous. As soon as the sun was high in the sky, I opened the sunroof and blasted the music. It was hard to concentrate on the road with Sadie’s hair whipping around her, making her look like a goddamned angel in the seat next to me.

For all the vibes I’d gotten that she disapproved of this trip, that she was nervous and unsure, for the moment, she seemed to be at peace. She closed her eyes, leaning back against the seat as her face went lax. For twenty minutes, she said little, and I thought she might be sleeping. “Griffin, are you in some kind of danger?” The question was so sudden I swerved slightly and her eyes popped open, looking to me in surprise at my reaction. Thankfully, I was used to pulling stunts on the road, and there wasn’t much traffic. I recovered quickly from the driving; Sadie’s question was a little harder to deflect. So I did what came naturally: I lied. “Is it a crime to want to get away when the world is coming down on your head?” I forced myself to smile as I glanced over into her worried honey-colored gaze. “I told you not to worry, didn’t I? All you need to be concerned with,” I reached over to squeeze her thigh, “is sun, sand, and me. Trust me, Sadie, that’s more than enough.” It worked. Her cheeks flushed and her arousal was enough to take her mind of anything more she might have asked me. Reaching down, she moved her hand to cover mine, her lips parting slightly. I was instantly hard. It was more than enough just to see her after a week of waiting and wanting, but when she pulled shit like that… I wanted nothing more than to pull over and give her exactly what she wanted on the side of the road, regardless of who drove by. But I had promised her she could have her way until we got to the beach house—something I was seriously regretting at that particular moment. “Griffin.” I was doing almost ninety, but that breathy, sexy tone of hers was enough to tear my eyes from the road for the fraction of a second it took to see a mischievous glint in her eyes. I liked that look. I’d come to recognize that it meant my sweet Sadie was about to do something uncharacteristically naughty. I wasn’t disappointed. Removing my hand from her thigh, she turned the tables, reaching over to palm the muscles of my stomach. They tightened in reaction and I sucked in a breath as her slender fingers slid lower and lower. I was wearing a t-shirt but it might as well have been nothing, I was so goddamned hot for her. Watching my face carefully, Sadie tugged my t-shirt up over my abdomen before adjusting her seatbelt

so she could lean over my lap. When she exhaled a hot breath against my bare stomach, a harsh curse escaped me. I couldn’t help it. I could say that I hadn’t meant to turn sweet, innocent Sadie into such a degenerate, but that would have been an outright lie. “You have to promise me…” she murmured huskily, beneath the purr of the engine, “…that you won’t kill us.” My eyes darted down to see her tongue slide over full lips as she began working at my fly. Why the hell would I kill us now? I was going to live through this—God knew when the next time I’d get to see such a sight would be. Even though I’d watched her lean over—watched her undo my pants—when Sadie’s mouth closed around my throbbing cock, the nirvana was almost enough to make me see double. She took almost all of me in instantly, and as my hands tightened on the steering wheel, I fought for concentration. All I could do was take it mile by mile and try not to fuck up when the glorious suction around my cock was driving me to the edge of my sanity. I didn’t have to ask; I knew that prim, proper Sadie had never done this with another man before. She’d all but admitted it to me on the first full night we spent together. She seemed almost as enchanted as I was at the delicious, devilish acts I coaxed from her. But I never forced her. I’ve never forced a woman in my life. What my Sadie did she did out of pure enthusiasm, and that was why I loved it so fucking much.

By the time we actually got to the beach house, I was a complete fucking wreck. My angel hadn’t quite let me come, keeping me on the edge for almost an entire hour and a half while I raced towards the coast at breakneck speed. My cock was hard as nails, every muscle in my body painfully stiff from the effort of keeping the car on the road. The moment we pulled up in the drive I all but launched myself out of the car, rounding to the passenger side to yank the door open. Sadie looked up at me coyly, her lips still moist from her activities, and a possessive growl escaped me. No way she thought she could play innocent now. Reaching into the car, I hauled her out and over my shoulder and a gasp of surprise escaped her. “Griffin! What about our bags?” “Fuck the bags.” I’d never been more sincere about anything in my life. Locking the car, I turned back towards the house to start purposefully down the walk.

I took a moment—just the briefest one—to appreciate my investment. About six months ago, I had wondered if it might not be a good idea to purchase a getaway just outside of the city. I had a couple apartments around the states, and one or two in Asia, where I’d done some intensive training, but nothing other than the penthouse in the city where I’d grown up. Riley—I swore the old man could see into the goddamned future—always suggested that I have a backup in case things ever got hairy. Well, the beach house had every luxury I’d ever need. Situated on three acres of prime beachfront property, it sprawled over carefully manicured lawns and reached out to welcome me with open arms. To welcome us. I was pretty sure Sadie complimented me on the house, at least it sounded like she did. I was too busy punching in the key code at the lock to hear her properly. Once we were in the foyer, the motion sensor lights came on automatically. Not that I would have needed them. I found the nearest wall and pressed her against it, regardless of whatever expensive decoration crashed to the floor. When I kissed her, I tasted myself and almost two hours of pure fucking frustration. The little minx had teased me until I couldn’t see straight, and now she was going to get her comeuppance. As I sucked at her lower lip, her jaw, her neck, I palmed her behind and pressed my dick against the soft warmth of her body, remembering how she’d teased me with the tip of her tongue. How she’d taken me down her throat and sucked until I was right on the cusp before pulling away with a mischievous little laugh. Cutest of all was how she got flustered every time I reminded her that people could probably see. She would stop for just long enough to try to regain her propriety before setting back to her task. But the time for playing was done. Reaching for the halter straps of her dress, I tore them down so her generous breasts bounced free and she gasped. She might have meant to scold me, I’ll never know. I was too busy getting handfuls of those glorious tits, plumping them to my mouth to taste the sweetness of pebbled nipples. She tasted like sunshine and warmth, everything that was right with the world. Her hands tunneled through my hair and she clung to me, trembling as she moaned. I wanted to hear more of that. I wanted Sadie’s screams to fill the house—the first and only woman I’d ever brought here. We’d claim the place for our own, and we’d do it slowly. But for now… When my teeth fastened onto her nipple to tease, a soft cry escaped her. Her head fell back and she

arched against me, all but serving her tits up for my feasting. Only someone out of their fucking mind would have refused such an offering. Lifting her from her position against the wall, I carried Sadie down the hallway in the direction of the dining room. Luckily enough for me, I remembered the layout of the house enough that I didn’t have to watch where I was going. I could devote all my attention to Sadie’s swollen nipples and her breathy moans. The hard buds all but sprang against my tongue and, one day, I promised myself, I’d take all afternoon just to see if I could make her come with nothing more than my mouth on her tits. But not today. Today, my cock demanded satisfaction—the sooner the better. Shoving a few place settings aside, I cleared a place on the dining room table and set Sadie down, yanking her hips to the edge. Beneath her dress she was wearing some flimsy scrap of lace that I’d take more time to admire later. For the moment, I just stripped it from her, groaning at the gush of wetness that met my fingertips. Before I could even reach for my fly, Sadie was working at it with dexterous fingers, pulling eagerly until she could undo my fly and my cock popped free. After only a few minutes of being confined to my pants, it bobbed against my abdomen, and Sadie stared at it with enough hunger to make my stomach tighten in anticipation. “This what you want, baby?” Taking hold of her hips with one hand, I positioned my cock with the other, running it teasingly up and down her drenched slit. Sadie moaned unabashedly, laid out on the table before me like my first and last meal, all ready for the taking. “Yesss…please, Griffin. Give it to me.” Those were the magic words. It had only been a week, one fucking week, but when I slammed into her, it was like seeing God. I hissed her name as I leaned over her on the table, my hands pinning her wrists to the expensive, gleaming pine. The way I moved against her was almost fucking desperate—I had to be as deep as I could, as fast as I could, and I wanted nothing more than to lose my mind in her tight, hot pussy. She clenched around me like a vice, sucking me in. That, along with the sight of her lips parted, her blonde hair in messy waves on the table, was almost enough to undo me right then and there. But I was far from done with her. I wasn’t finishing until dear Sadie had gotten her due. Straightening, I pulled out of her just long enough for her to whine at the loss. She arched up against me, body taut as a bowstring, as she struggled against the grip I had on her wrists. With a dark chuckle, I rearranged myself to that I could hold both of her wrists with one hand. The other crept

down to smack her thigh sharply so she yelped. “Impatient Sadie. So fucking greedy.” She all but writhed in my grip, a mewl of want escaping her. “Griffin, you can’t…” “Can’t what?” I demanded, smacking her ass again, harder this time. “Do what I want with you? Fuck you? Not fuck you? You’re mine, Sadie. I would have thought you’d get that into that gorgeous head of yours by now.” My hand moved firmly, almost bruisingly, along her thigh a moment before I flipped her so her stomach was pressed against the table. Those soft, perfect thighs of hers trembled in anticipation as my cock slid over her dripping entrance. “Say it, Sadie,” I growled, needing to hear the words. “You’re mine.” Her breath hitched on a soft whimper as she rubbed back against me in need. To her merit, she only paused for a brief second before she answered me. “I’m yours, Griffin. Yours and no one else’s. Now, hurry up and fuck me.” Jesus fucking Christ. Still surprising me. When I pushed inside her again, she clawed at the table, pressing back against me with a loud cry as she took every glorious inch. She immediately tightened, vice-like, around me, and there was a hot gush as she got even slicker, her thighs trembling wildly. It was like a goddamned invitation. Taking firm hold of her hips, I slammed my hips against hers with a force that pressed her into the side of the table. She went up on her toes and I held her there, at the perfect angle, as I pressed deeper into her with every stroke. She tried to stay quiet, and she almost managed. Until I reached up underneath her and found the slick little bead of her clit to play with. Almost immediately, she cried out sharply, her breath hitching. All the muscles in her back tightened as she clamped down around me hard. All her muscles contracting around my cock…milking me as she came…it was like heaven. I gritted my teeth before biting firmly into her shoulder as I staved off my own orgasm. I wasn’t quite ready to finish yet. I still had an hour of frustration to work out. While she was still shaking, I picked her up, grunting at the way the position almost forced my cock out of her. I carried Sadie the ten steps out of the dining room and into the living room where I draped her over the back of what I was sure was a very expensive leather couch, though I was pretty positive that I didn’t give a shit.

When I thrust back into Sadie, this time I all but lifted her lower half off the ground. She screamed—a sound that echoed around the otherwise empty beach house—her fingers curling into, and quite possibly ripping, the leather. It was gratifying as hell, knowing I was the only man to ever make her like this. I turned Sadie Warner into a creature of raw need, and that, along with the way her body gripped mine with ravenous need, was all I needed.


I was exhausted. Not the awful kind that came from a week in the office with my boss riding my behind to stick to a deadline, or the kind that came after pulling an all-nighter to finish something I’d been putting off. No, I was the bone deep, sated tired that came from having my body stimulated in every way it could be. It was a sensation I’d only come to know since meeting Griffin. For me, sex had always been something rather unfulfilling. When it was over, I usually ended up crawling out of bed to finish things myself. My previous partners probably couldn’t even find the clitoris on a female anatomy map. Griffin, for all his lack of formal schooling, had no problem with that. The man could literally pleasure me into unconsciousness—as had been proven by the place where I woke up. To be honest, I couldn’t even properly recall drifting off. What I could recall was Griffin having his way with me on nearly every surface available in his beach house before finally allowing me to collapse on the sofa, my limbs refusing to support me. From there, we’d somehow ended up in a mound of pillows on the floor, and that was where I currently found myself. It was surprisingly comfortable, considering the location, and I found myself swimming back into consciousness slowly, gently. Any trepidation I might have felt about this trip had been melted away—victim to Griffin’s irrefutable relaxation techniques. The thought made me smile sleepily as I rolled onto my stomach. I was naked as the day I was born and I was pretty sure Griffin owed me a new dress, but the fact didn’t bother me as much as it should have. In fact, considering that I was absolutely bare on the floor in a strange place, I felt pretty damn good. I was away from the office, from the career I thought had defined my life and everything I was expected to be. Here, I didn’t have to be safe Sadie. I could be whatever I wanted. Rolling over, I tucked a pillow under my back so my behind wouldn’t touch the wooden floor. Griffin was sprawled out next to me. Somehow, the man always managed to look like a Greek god, despite being in some of the most unflattering positions known to man. He was just as naked as I was, laid out on his side, his gloriously muscled body gleaming in the low light.

I swallowed thickly, trying not to remember the way the man threw me around like a rag doll and manipulated me to his whim. I was going to be sore for days and I didn’t regret one second of it. With a wistful sigh, I leaned over to brush a few stray strands of dark hair from his face. It really was unfair that one man could be so goddamned handsome. Those cheekbones…that devastatingly dirty mouth—it was no help at all that I now knew exactly what it was capable of. I could feel my cheeks burning and I closed my eyes, taking a shuddering breath. Griffin had my ankles behind my ears for the better part of an hour while he used his mouth on me, and I didn’t think I’d ever recover. He had ruined me for all other men, and I wanted to be angry at him. There were a lot of things I wanted to feel, that I should feel where Griffin was concerned. The problem was, I couldn’t quite muster the strength to bring them to fruition. I was too busy feeling absolute bliss. And not only physically. Leaning over, I pressed a soft kiss to his temple to smooth the wrinkles of tension there. The man grumbled in his sleep, his forehead only wrinkling further as he reached out for me. But even as tired as I was, I wasn’t going to let him get hold of me again. I needed a breather. I rolled beyond the length of his embrace, letting out a little yelp as the cold wooden floor touched my bare skin. I quickly scrabbled to my feet, surprised to find that my legs were still wobbly, my thighs deliciously sore. I needed a shower and an entire gallon of water. Sighing, long and low, I gave a long stretch, working out all of the kinks. I wasn’t exactly sure where we were, but it was somewhere along the coast, and there wasn’t a single neighbor in sight. Crossing my arms over my bare breasts, I wandered past Griffin and my makeshift pallet to explore the rest of the house. I hadn’t really gotten to see much of it while I’d been…indisposed. As with everything Griffin touched, the place was simultaneously luxe and relaxed. I’d be willing to bet that he paid money to have someone decorate for him. The construction was new and modern, with high, vaulted ceilings and expansive windows that offered a gorgeous view of the ocean beyond. I wasn’t sure what time we had arrived, but by this point, the sun was sinking beyond the horizon, shooting streaks of gorgeous color over the sky and water. As there was no one around to see me, I didn’t mind pressing my nose to the window to take in the earth-shattering sight. It was obvious that Griffin hadn’t chosen this place lightly. It was the perfect beach getaway, and I found myself looking forward to a little rest and relaxation. Things at the office were hectic. If I wasn’t being hassled to finish one project or the other, my coworkers were trying to pry information about Griffin out of me. They were convinced that I was his

girlfriend and so I had to know every detail about his arrest and whatever crimes he might or might not have committed. Even Stella, who I’d been fairly certain was on my side up until that point, had peppered me with inquiries until I was all but begging Andrew to bar everyone from my cube. And even afterwards, people would sneak by, shooting me dirty glances as if I was some kind of anathema. But even that hadn’t been enough to get me out of work. For that, I’d had to come up with a truly grandiose excuse, one my boss would accept. Ultimately, I’d gone with something that appealed to the reporter in him, that I was going to get an inside scoop on the Griffin Webb story. Since Andrew, as my boss, had a bit more decorum than the rest of the men I worked with, he didn’t make inappropriate jokes when I mentioned that I’d be going away with Griffin to get the supposed story. He just made me promise to deliver. Exactly what I’d deliver hadn’t been specified, and that was what I was counting on. The last thing I planned was to sell Griffin out. I was planning on going back into the office with a story insisting that there was no story. That Griffin was innocent and everything people believed about him was wrong. All the tabloid mongers could stick that in their pipes and smoke it. The thought gave me a kind of vicious satisfaction. After being chased down by reporters from every major tabloid in the city all week long, I’d like nothing more than to give them a metaphorical kick in their teeth. But all that would come later. For now, I’d take the rest and relaxation this getaway offered me and try to come to terms with exactly what I felt for Griffin. I was still half on the crazy train, in safe Sadie’s opinion, but that seemed to matter less and less as days passed. Though a lot had happened since the night we’d been together, Griffin remained steadfast in one thing: he wanted to be with me as much as possible. He’d given me the week to gather my things and prepare to go on this trip, but during that week, he’d called me every single day; when he’d done so, there was a note of uncertainty beneath all his crass banter. Almost as if he were nervous. That he thought I’d change my mind. Well, that made two of us. But, somehow, here I was, making the most of it. Trusting Griffin as he’d asked me to. I had to admit, if trusting him got me to a place as beautiful as this one, and feeling as wanted as I did, things might not be all bad. When you weren’t watching the sun set, it seemed like it happened slowly, but as I watched the glowing red orb sink behind the horizon, it all seemed to happen in an instant. Yellow faded to

orange, orange faded to red, and ultimately, a purple tinge took over the sky as night began to set in. Stars started to appear one by one—far more than were visible in the sky, and I suddenly found myself in awe of how very small I felt. Despite the stars, however, it was soon very dark and Griffin didn’t appear to have woken up. I found myself feeling my way very carefully around the room I was in to switch on a few lights just so I didn’t kill myself. I wasn’t out to light up the entire place, just to give myself enough illumination to see by. Once that was done, I considered only briefly before wandering into the kitchen and towards the door that led to the back balcony. The last time I had gone onto a balcony bare, Griffin had to threaten me to get me to follow through. This time, I went of my own accord, sliding the door open and stepping out into the warm spring night air. The calming sound of ocean waves breaking gently against the beach immediately lulled me into a sense of peace and I stepped to the edge of the balcony to lean against the railing. It was hard to remember a time where I’d felt more at peace. Closing my eyes, I let out a long breath of satisfaction as a gentle breeze kissed my skin. If this was how Griffin lived on a daily basis, I had to give him a bit more credit. Living on the edge was a lot less dangerous than I originally thought. At a low rustle below me, I stretched my neck out to glance at the foliage beneath the balcony. The light from the kitchen just let me see the branches of lush green—and something else. All at once, I froze. There was something there. Not an animal, it was much too big to be a rabbit or a bird. A decidedly man-shaped shadow was crouched just at the edge of the circle of kitchen light, completely unmoving. Every muscle in my body tensed and I forced myself not to panic. I needed to call for Griffin, and I needed to do it right that second. Maybe my eyes were playing tricks on me, but it was better safe than sorry. All at once, there was a low, electric snap and every single light on the property went out. I was rendered completely blind, and the brisk sound of footsteps coming up the back porch steps thudded loudly in my ears. Without hesitation, I screamed for Griffin, just before a heavy body barreled into mine.


I went from being knocked out cold to alert so quickly it made my stomach lurch. I wasn’t quite sure what happened, but I knew that I’d heard Sadie scream. It was pitch dark—nighttime—and she wasn’t by my side. I forced my way out of a cloud of grogginess and leapt to my feet, adrenaline rushing through my veins. Sadie. Where the hell was Sadie? There was a loud crash from the kitchen and I raced towards the source of the noise, leaping over the back of the couch. I could give a shit that I was stark naked. If someone was coming after my Sadie, I was going to crush them. I tried turning on the light in the kitchen only to find that the switches didn’t work. It took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the darkness in the room, but once they did, I found Sadie sprawled out on the floor, just as naked as I was. The door to the kitchen balcony was wide open, and she was staring back towards it, her breath coming in sharp gusts. “Sadie!” My tone was sharp as I knelt down next to her, feeling over her bare body to make sure she wasn’t hurt. Well, mostly to make sure that she wasn’t hurt. It might be fucking ridiculous, considering the situation, but she could still put me at full attention with the simplest touch. “You okay?” She was trembling, and the predator in me wanted to carry her to the bedroom and lock the door, protect her and claim her at the same time. “I’m…there’s a man. There’s someone here!” Her brown eyes gleamed with fright in the low light and I felt my chest tighten. “A man? What, like a fucking reporter? Some media dick?” She shook her head slowly. “No…bigger. He…he didn’t have a camera. Dressed all in black.” I went completely rigid. Fuck. Jesus Fucking Christ. I went from hot to cold to blazing again all in the space of a few seconds. A big guy? Dressed all in black? Here?

Almost immediately, I remembered the text message I’d received at the beginning of the week. I’d have been a goddamned idiot not to take it for the warning it was, but I never imagined Ivan would go this far. Not with Sadie around. My blood boiled at the very thought. “Sadie, listen to me carefully, okay?” The stern tone of my voice caught her immediate attention and she stopped shaking to gaze up at me with bated breath. “Was the guy muscular, dark hair, dark eyes, built like a fucking bear?” Her eyes widened at my description and she didn’t have to answer me to let me know I’d hit right on the money. Vlad, one of Ivan’s goons. Of course, he would send Vlad. After all, it was his brother I’d taken out. Vlad would be pissed, and justifiably so. But the fact that Ivan had sent him after me knowing that Sadie was with me…that was just fucking insulting. And I wasn’t going to let it stand. Before Sadie could say a single word, the tinkling of breaking glass came from the front entryway and she jumped. “Fuck,” I spat, taking her arm firmly to drag her to her feet and back through the kitchen to the living room. Thankfully, it was all the way across the house from the foyer, and the furthest room from danger. Pressing down on Sadie’s shoulder, I urged her down behind the couch, even as I reached for my pants, which were dangling over the side where I’d left them. I went commando, making myself decent in two seconds flat as I covered my mouth with a finger, mouthing to Sadie, “Stay here. Quiet.”

She nodded frantically, and for a moment, guilt lanced through me at the fear in her expression. I never meant to bring her into this. Taking her out of the city had been my way of keeping her from the danger I was in. But now all that bullshit had come to me. I left her only reluctantly, gearing up for a fight. And why not? This one had been a long time coming. I still remembered the look on Vlad’s face as he stared down at his brother’s body. He wanted blood, but he wasn’t going to get mine. Not if I could fucking help it. I passed out of the living room and into the main hallway, where the sound of hateful laughter reached my ears. They were breaking things, but I cared little about things. I just wanted them away from

Sadie. Though there was little, if any light, I had no trouble recognizing the two men who had broken into my house. Vlad and Pytra—huge as gorillas and with half the intelligence. “Come out here, Webb.” Vlad might have been laughing, but the fury in his tone was evident. He picked up a vase I was sure must have cost a few thousand and hurled it against the nearest wall cruelly. “I crush you. Slowly.” Somehow, I doubted he wanted to get into actual hand-to-hand with me. More like he had a gun and was waiting for the right opportunity to blow my brains out. Either way, I knew how to handle him and Pytra both. I stayed out of sight, listening to them ruining my furniture as they made their way further and further into the interior of the house. If Vlad was waiting for an opening, then so was I. He was slightly ahead of Pytra, so if I took the other man out and then got to Vlad’s gun, that was all I would need. After about two minutes, they were both getting a little too close to the living room for my comfort. I had to act then or risk putting Sadie in more danger than she was already. Taking a deep breath, I popped out from behind the kitchen partition and put Pytra in a headlock from behind, choking off his air supply quickly and efficiently. He didn’t even have time to reach for his weapon. Unfortunately, as he began to run out of air, he also panicked, and his choking sounds alerted Vlad. The larger man whirled, withdrawing his weapon and shooting. The sound was deafening in the highceilinged hallway and I cursed, knocking Pytra out with a quick roundhouse kick before I went for Vlad. It was good for me that the bastard was a horrible shot. I managed to knock the gun from his hand with a quick strike to his wrist, and then it was the hand-to-hand that he hadn’t wanted. The man’s face was a grimace of determination and fury as he tried to get me on the ground, throwing punches left and right. “Ivan wants his money, Webb!” He got me good once—and only once—and I tasted blood as I hit the opposite wall with enough force to knock the wind from me. “And I want my revenge.” What was it with Russians and revenge? “Ivan’s not getting one red cent from me.” I spat out a mouthful of blood as we circled one another carefully. “And your brother deserved what he got.” That did it. With a roar, Vlad came at me. I ducked out of the way at the last second, sending him crashing into the wall. The damage would cost me thousands, but it would be worth it every time I remembered the idiot’s face crashing into the drywall. What I didn’t expect was for a blade to whip out and catch me across the side.

“Shit!” The pain was swift and intense, even if the wound was relatively shallow. Blood almost immediately darkened my side and I growled in displeasure as I glanced around to give Vlad the punishment he deserved. I found the man had somehow crawled across the room and gotten hold of his gun, which he pointed at me from only a few yards away. I had to count on his atrocious sense of aim, and when he fired, I dodged. When he saw me coming at him full on, Vlad panicked, firing wildly—five shots before I finally got the gun away from him. A piercing scream of pain colored the air and I felt it like a needle of ice straight through the chest. “Sadie!” I’d only got one good punch in on Vlad before I whirled, heading back into the living room with my heart in my throat. That scream. That fucking scream. She was right where I’d left her, but now Sadie was sprawled out on the floor, unmoving. There was a horrible, dark stain spreading out from behind the couch that looked sickeningly like blood, and I felt something within me twist. Snap. I forgot how to breathe, how to think, and only saw red. Sadie. My Sadie. I was on top of Vlad before he could even register what was happening—only this time, I wasn’t going to just rough him up. My second punch was hard enough to break his jaw, the third enough to cave in one of his eye sockets. He screamed, a horrible, bubbling, choking sound, as his face turned to a pile of mush and blood as I hit him again and again. With every bone that broke, my rage burned hotter and hotter. Sadie. He shot Sadie. I was still punching long after Vlad had stopped moving. My knuckles were a mess of my blood and his and there was no way he was ever getting up again. My face was wet with what I thought was gore, but the moment I snapped from my rage-filled haze, I realized the hot moisture wasn’t blood. “Sadie,” I whispered, as if in a daze. “Sadie.” I finally left Vlad where he lay, rushing back to the living room to shove the couch aside. Sadie lay there, perfectly still, and I dropped to my knees, afraid to breathe. “Sadie…Jesus Christ, Sadie…” She moaned. Fucking moaned.

She was alive! I could have sagged to the carpet in relief. Taking her into my arms, I groaned when my fingertips came away wet with blood. Where was she hit? Was it bad? I reached into the back pocket of my jeans to yank out my phone and called 911 without hesitation. I could give two shits about what trouble I was in; I needed someone to help my Sadie. And I needed them yesterday.


My head hurt. And it didn’t just hurt, it was pounding. I was in complete darkness, and I had no idea what on earth had happened. When I tried to speak I could only form a faint croak, and my body felt completely boneless. I tried to focus on breathing as I struggled to remember what had happened before the massive headache. Griffin and I…he took me on a trip. We went to the coast, to his beach house. We’d been enjoying his particular brand of relaxation when something had happened…someone broke in! At the memory, my eyes popped open and I was immediately blinding by bright while hospital fluorescents. For a full minute, I got so dizzy that I was pretty certain I was going to be sick—and that was when the word decided to right itself. The room swam into focus, and sitting right next to me was none other than Griffin. At the sight of him, a plethora of emotions washed over me. Principal among them was relief. The last time I’d seen him, he’d gone after whomever it was who’d broken in and I had no idea if I’d ever see him again. He was safe, and that had been my primary concern. The second thing I felt was anger. Griffin lied to me. I blatantly asked him on the way to the beach house if he was in any kind of danger and he told me no. But he obviously knew whoever it was who’d come to the beach house. He described them perfectly without me saying a word, and he’d gone after them like hell on wheels. I doubted that would have happened if these had been run-of-the-mill home invaders. No, these men had been after Griffin specifically—and he hadn’t told me. What else, I wondered, had he lied about? The man asked me to trust him, and then he kept all the secrets in the world from me. He told me he had feelings for me but neglected to be honest. How was I supposed to take that? The third emotion that rolled over me was a need so powerful it made my toes curl beneath the thin hospital sheet. He had no right to sit there, looking so absolutely delectable in his white t-shirt and jeans as he stared down at me raptly. His hair was damp, as if he’d recently showered, and though his features were just as enrapturing as ever, there was a haunted look to them, a tortured edge that made my chest tighten.

When he saw I was awake, he leapt from the chair to take my hand tightly, bending over me to swathe me in his presence and his scent. “Sadie…thank God you’re awake.” “What…” I was embarrassed to find my throat dry and hoarse, and when I attempted to clear it, Griffin all but lunged for the bedside table to grab the glass of water there and hand it to me. After a few swallows, my throat felt better. I tried again. “What happened?” At my question, Griffin flushed—the first time I’d ever seen him do so in anything other than anger. The guilt all but radiated off him, and he hesitated before he answered. “Bullet grazed your arm…you fainted. I freaked out. I thought you were…they had…” His jaw locked tight into place as he stopped speaking. I stared up at him, shocked to see Griffin’s eyes wet with something that looked suspiciously like tears. He was upset. Beyond upset, the man looked like he’d been through hell and back in the short time that I’d been unconscious. Never letting go of my hand, he reached blindly behind him to find the chair he’d been sitting in and dragged it forward to sink into it once more. “Sadie…” When Griffin next spoke, his voice was a hoarse croak. His gaze dropped from mine to my hand as he pressed his forehead against it, his grip tight. “I’m so, so sorry. I never meant for you to get mixed up in any of this. I was just trying to protect you.” I swallowed slowly, my throat curiously thick. Why was I upset? Griffin had done this. He’d lied, put me in danger, kept secrets! And he regretted it. That much was evident by the way his usually proud shoulders sagged and the dark circles beneath his eyes. “What?” I finally managed, swallowing my own grief. “What are you trying to protect me from?” At that exact moment, a low knock came on the door. Griffin released my hand, his green gaze turning irate as he looked to the door. In a smooth movement, he stood and crossed the room in three strides to yank the door open. “What?” Standing in the doorway was a tall, blue-eyed man with graying mahogany hair that looked to be about my father’s age. Before he spoke, he flashed a badge that made Griffin’s mouth snap shut. “Mr. Webb. Detective Morgan Addison, City Police. I understand your girlfriend’s injuries are minor and she’s recovering nicely.” Griffin visibly paled. When he spoke, his voice was gruff with embarrassment. “Yeah. They’re keeping her overnight for observation but she’ll be fine.” Well, that was nice to know, all things considered. Now that I remembered things a bit more clearly, I thought I must have fainted at the sharp pain in my arm—I wasn’t exactly the swooning, fainting type.

Wouldn’t get me very far in my profession. “I’m glad. Would you mind stepping outside so we can discuss what happened?” Griffin cast a glance back in my direction, his gaze hovering on mine. Within a split second, I realized with no small amount of surprise that he was asking my permission. Griffin Webb, subservient to no female, international playboy, bruiser, and hard ass was asking me for something. What could I do but nod? His mouth set into a tight line, Griffin left the hospital room with the detective, closing the door behind him. Without him, the hospital room suddenly seemed horribly empty. It was in that instant that everything hit me at once. I was in the hospital. I’d been shot, albeit grazed, but still shot, and here I was, waiting like a lost puppy on a man who had put me in danger, however unintentional. If my parents ever found out, they’d lose their minds. Hell, if anyone at my job ever found out, they’d lose their minds. I was having a bit of trouble keeping it together. How the hell had I gotten to this point? A few weeks ago, I’d been assigned to do a story on Griffin Webb. That was all. The man got under my skin and worked his way into my life until he was all I could think about. He was destructive, dangerous. A force of nature that I couldn’t possibly hope to keep up with. And yet…he was exciting. He was unpredictable; he sparked something in me long dormant, something I didn’t know existed. There was something about being with Griffin that demanded I seize the moment and take advantage of all the opportunities I had ignored trying to play it safe. I was good at my job, and I loved being a writer, but how many years had I spent at Grind waiting for a cover story to fall in my lap? Two whole years? In that time, I could have been travelling and writing, making a living as I lived. I could have fulfilled dreams long forgotten in the doldrums of the day to day. And I’d forgotten what I was capable of until Griffin reminded me. It was exhausting, I had to admit, fighting the person I used to be. Safe Sadie wanted nothing to do with Griffin, and though she might think she was keeping me out of harm’s way, what she was really doing was keeping me from living my life. If I was ever going to accept Griffin—and whatever it was he felt I needed protecting from—I was

going to have to let her go. Somehow. I sighed, closing my eyes as I tried to find my Zen place. When I opened them, my eyes lit on two dozen vibrant red roses sitting on the regulation hospital bureau close to the door. At the sight of them, I couldn’t help but smile. I could hardly imagine Griffin buying flowers for a woman. He’d effectively rendered me warm and fuzzy inside, if only for a moment. Not that I was ever going to tell him that. I didn’t know how long Griffin was outside talking to the detective, but by the time the door finally opened, I was dozing slightly. I forced myself awake to the sight of the fighter’s broad back as he slipped quietly back into the hospital room. “I’m awake.” Even if I didn’t sound much like it. Griffin immediately turned, his expression solemn. He ran a hand over the stubble that covered his chin before crossing the room to me and taking his seat once more. I pulled myself into an upright position against the pillows to stare at him, waiting patiently. He knew what I was waiting for. “Sadie…” He reached out to take my hand again, the gesture sending warmth through me. “I’m sorry I lied to you. I was trying to keep you safe, and now I realize how fucking stupid that was. I…I want to tell you everything…but I’m scared.” I looked down from where our fingers were intertwined to his earnest green gaze. “What are you scared of?” I couldn’t possibly imagine. The man had gone half-dressed against two men twice his size with guns. He took men down for a living. He gave few fucks about what anyone thought about him and did whatever he wanted. “That you’ll walk away from me and never look back.” All the breath was sucked from my lungs as I stared at him, at a complete loss for words. That was what scared him? That I’d leave him? There had been no real discussion that we were officially together. Certainly, he admitted he had feelings for me and I definitely felt for him, but this…he was speaking like I was the love of his goddamned life. He was scared of losing me. I didn’t think I’ve ever had a man tell me that. “I won’t walk away from you, Griffin.” I squeezed his hand reassuringly, pushing safe Sadie down

one final time before she poofed from existence. “I promise.” Strong words. I only hoped my stomach could match them. Griffin exhaled a long breath before he started to speak; despite all his bulk, I’d never seen him as small as he was in that moment. “When I was young…I made a lot of bad decisions. I’ve been lucky enough that most of them have just disappeared but one…one has come back to bite me in the ass in a big way.” His mouth turned downward into a scowl as he continued. “The first year I started fighting professionally, I was hungry. I wanted to win so damn bad there was little I wouldn’t do for it. Riley kept me out of the idiotic shit like fixing matches and paying people off, but he wasn’t around when I met Ivan, the neighborhood steroid pusher.” Griffin grimaced. “That shit is more rampant in the sport than you can even imagine, and Ivan was all too happy to convince me that it would give me the edge I needed so fuckin’ desperately. So we made an agreement and I started juicing.” My eyes widened. Was this Griffin’s secret? That he was a steroid user? That his talents weren’t entirely his own? I couldn’t lie; the idea rocked me to my very core. “It went on for about a year or so before I realized that the drugs weren’t so much giving me an edge as making me think I had one. They fucked with my already shitty temper, made me groggy and fuzzy, and if my muscles grew, it was only physically. My career didn’t advance too much, and so I made one of the better decisions in my life and I told Ivan I was through.” The muscles in my body relaxed somewhat. Only a year. So he’d made a mistake. Lots of athletes made mistakes, especially when they were just starting out. “About three or four months after I was clean, I started really making it. Landing big fights, moving up the ranks. And, of course, Ivan took interest.” I hadn’t thought it was possible, but Griffin’s scowl deepened. “The more money I made, the more he demanded of me. Told me I owed him for making my career when he didn’t make shit. I never paid him a dime. Over the years, he popped in and out, made his demands and then left me alone for stretches of time. When he started trying to get the kids I work with hooked, I put my foot down. Had a tussle or two with his boys. He got a little more serious after that.” The look on Griffin’s face was all I needed to know about exactly how serious this Ivan had gotten. “He started making threats against Riley, the gym, me. And I couldn’t abide by that. I wanted to nip things in the bud once and for all, make sure Ivan knew to back up. The night I left you, I was planning on having a discussion with Ivan” His grip on my hand tightened. “He escalated things. A few of his guys pulled pieces on me, threatened to do me in right there and then unless Ivan got his money. But the thing is, Sadie, this isn’t just about money.” Griffin shook his head slowly. “If I give in to Ivan once, he’ll just keep coming after me again and again until he thinks he owns me, and whatever else he wants. Of course, I told him I wasn’t giving him anything. That pissed him off. There were shots

fired, one guy grabbed a hold of me and I…removed him. Violently. I didn’t mean to kill him, but that’s what happened. It was him or me.” I raised a free hand to cover my mouth as shock seeped into me. So he had done it. Griffin had killed a man by accident. The set of Griffin’s mouth tightened further as he continued. “And I might as well tell you, Vlad, the guy who shot you at the beach house—he was Dimi’s brother—the guy who went down…he’s dead too.” Jesus Christ. I must have looked as overwhelmed as I felt because Griffin was leaning forward all at once, his expression softening as he took my opposite hand in his. “I’m sorry Sadie. This isn’t me. I’m not a fucking killer. But when I heard you scream…when I saw you lying there and I thought you were…” His voice trembled slightly before he fell silent. A brief moment passed before he cleared his throat. “I lost it. I lost my shit completely. And that’s what Vlad got. No one threatens me and mine, Sadie. No one.” Reaching up, he cupped my chin gently, his eyes searching mine, alert for any sign of fear or distress. “I swear to God, I’ll never let anyone hurt you again. I swear it.” This was a Griffin none of the tabloids ever saw. One who wasn’t in MMA cages or in bar fights. This Griffin was mine and mine alone. And when he told me he’d protect me, I believed him. I was scared, most certainly I was scared. But now that I knew exactly what was up, there was no way I was leaving Griffin’s side until this whole thing had blown over. I needed to know he was safe —top fighter or not. “Just…promise me you won’t go bare fisted against people with guns anymore.” My voice was surprisingly steady when I replied. His face lit up like a kid at Christmas, and in that precise moment, his eyes gleaming and his smile huge, Griffin was the most beautiful thing in the cosmos. “No promises. They come near you, they’re going down.” How could he show such bravado? This man was absolutely nuts. And I was falling for him. Hard.


They released Sadie from the hospital the next day, but only after getting on my ass several times about my trying to climb in bed with her. I wasn’t planning on fucking her—she was hurt for God’s sake. I just wanted to feel her close to me. To remind myself that she was still alive. For the few hours I had slept in the hospital, I was fucking tormented with nightmares in which Sadie didn’t wake up. Where she stayed dead and I had to have it on my conscious for the rest of my life. What the hell would any sane man do after that? I needed to remind myself that my woman was still with me. By the time she was discharged, the hospital was pissed as hell at me, but I couldn’t care less. They promised that she’d be fine—the bullet caused only a minor flesh wound that would heal in a few weeks. That didn’t exactly keep me from feeling guilty every time I caught a glimpse of the bandage on her shoulder. When we left the hospital, of course, the media had turned up full tilt. They demanded answers—what happened, where had we gone, all that shit—and I ignored the shit out of them. Instead of punching them into the dirt, I focused on getting Sadie to the car and the hell out of dodge. She, for her part, was far more collected than she’d been the first time reporters saw us together. But, of course, she’d come a long way since then. My sweet Sadie had changed, that much was evident to anyone who looked at her. She’d lost her timidity, all the excuses that kept her from being who she was. That didn’t mean she wasn’t afraid. Someone had tried to kill us. She’d be crazy not to be afraid. But she wasn’t running. Like hell if I would. We managed to leave the hospital with little incident, and Sadie merely leaned against the window, staring out at the city as we drove, her fingers tangled with mine. Ultimately, when we took the downtown ramp, she glanced at me for a split second before her lips curved upward into a small smile. “We going to your place?” I nodded curtly. “Cops everywhere. I can keep you safe. I want you close to me.” I raised her wrist to my mouth to bite at it for emphasis and she shivered. “Problem?” She shook her head and my heart stuttered in my chest. Sweet Sadie all to myself—almost as ideal as

the vacation we’d almost taken. This woman was going to drive me crazy. I’d never been so possessive. Never needed anyone so badly. Ivan would pay for what he’d done; I’d make sure of it. But not right now. Now, I needed to take care of my wounded tigress. Security at the apartment building kept the media at least thirty feet away from the building so we were able to make it up to my penthouse in relative peace. When we got here, however, I found myself suddenly… I don’t know. Shy? Embarrassed?

For the love of fucking Christ, I’d gotten the woman shot for God’s sake. It wasn’t like I could just jump all over her like I usually did. That wasn’t to say that I didn’t want to. Sadie looked divine in her jeans and t-shirt, her hair pulled into a messy knot atop her head. I wanted nothing more than to carry her off to my bed and make her come until she forgot the events of the past few days. But that wouldn’t be the adult thing to do. And if I wanted Sadie, really wanted her, I wasn’t idiotic enough to think there wouldn’t have to be some compromises. “So…” I set her bag down in the living room, unable to meet her honey colored gaze. “Are you alright? Your pain meds working? Do you need some water or something?” My sudden scrambling obviously amused her and her lips quirked upwards. “I’m fine, Griffin. I’m not in pain. You don’t have to treat me like I’m made of glass, you know.” I knew she was all too human; all those very real curves were going to drive me out of my mind with want. “Tell me what you need,” I returned, forcing myself to look her in the eye. The affection I caught there was humbling, so much so that I was tempted to do something ridiculous…like take her to bed…just to watch her sleep. To know she was safe beside me. “Well…” She shifted slightly, attempting to take her sweater off around the sling her arm was in. I immediately helped her extract her arm before tossing her sweater on the kitchen counter. “Actually… there is one thing…” She looked at me hopefully, and a bit nervously. When she did that I could see the flecks of gold in her eyes and I swallowed a groan. “Tell me.” “A bath,” she replied, reddening slightly. “I haven’t had a chance to clean up since the beach house and I…well, I got a look at your bathtub.”

It was a massive thing that was empty most of the time. I wasn’t one to lounge around doing nothing; I took quick showers and only lingered if my muscles were especially store. “You got it,” I affirmed with a nod before swallowing thickly. “Do you want…help?” A flush raised from the V of her breasts to bloom outwards from the center of her face and she cleared her throat before answering. “Yes. Please.” How the hell could I resist when Sadie begged? There was no way. I wiped dust out of the tub before filling it—Christ, it really was fucking massive—and I even rooted around under the sinks to find some Epsom salts some doctor had once given me to soothe taut muscles. I didn’t really believe in that bullshit, but maybe it would help Sadie to relax. While the bath ran, she sat on the edge of my bed, watching me through the entryway to the bathroom. I felt the warmth of her gaze on me and swallowed my lust. She just wanted help bathing, that didn’t mean she wanted me on top of her. “Come here.” I turned off the water when it was about two feet deep before beckoning her. She came without hesitation, stepping up in front of me, a mischievous glint in her gaze. As I reached down to begin undoing her pants, I frowned down at her. “Don’t look at me like that.” Fuck her skin was so soft. My fingers skimmed over her lower belly before I peeled her jeans down her legs so she could step out of them. “Like what?” She knew damn well what. I straightened slowly, resisting the urge to stay in a kneeling position and bury my face between her thighs. It felt like an eternity since I’d tasted her. “Like you want me to ream you into the wall.” I worked her shirt off over her shoulders before removing her sling and popping the fastenings on her bra. When her creamy breasts were freed to the cool air, her nipples hardened and a tic worked in my jaw. When my gaze rose to hers once again, I found she was gazing up at me expectantly, her lips slightly parted. I scowled, wrapping my hands around her waist to lift her into the bathtub. “You wanted help in the bath. That’s all.” It took everything I had to let her go. To take her shoulder and help her lower herself into the hot water and listen to the near orgasmic sigh that left her as she did so. She leaned back against the edge of the tub, her breasts bobbing atop the water as her eyes slid closed, and I cursed softly. She was trying to kill me. “So help me,” she mused, cracking one eye open. “Where’s the soap?”

Fuck that. I was out of my clothes in under a minute, grabbing the bottle of liquid soap from the shower before I stepped into the tub. With a soft laugh, Sadie moved to make room for me and I grunted as I sank into the hot water. I had to admit, it was nice. The water covering every inch of you instead of just sluicing off. Not that I could sit still like this for long, but if Sadie’s smooth, water slick skin was going to rub against me like that, I might just be willing to make a few allowances. I set the soap on the edge of the tub before I turned to her, taking hold of her hip to lift her onto my lap. I was already half-hard, and her ass sliding against my cock didn’t help much, but I managed to settle her between my legs so she was kneeling in front of me. Looking down at me, she arched a brow, her wet blonde hair dripping all over her magnificent tits. “I thought the bath was for me. Why are you laying down?” She made a good point. I’d intended to wash her from that particular angle, but the truth of our positions slipped from my mouth. “I want to look at you.” She smiled, her cheeks coloring slightly. “You look at me all the time.” Reaching out, I ran a hand up her damp abdomen, northward between her breaths, to stroke over the long, elegant line of her throat. I looked. And looked some more. “Not enough.” She let me touch her, her breath hitching in anticipation as my fingertips ghosted over her collarbone. I stroked downward, back the way that I’d come, but this time my thumbs brushed over pebbled, sweet nipples and I remembered the way the felt against my eager tongue. I moved lower, over her flat belly to the downy, small thatch of blonde curls between her legs. Sadie’s eyes never left my face as she watched me touch her. When I parted her lower lips and found her already wet for me, I groaned low in my throat. How long had she been like this? Because I’d been hard for at least the last ten minutes. “I don’t want to hurt you,” I murmured lowly, even as I stroked gently over her rapidly swelling clit. “You won’t,” she replied almost instantly, her hips arching into my caress as her eyes fluttered shut. “Please, Griffin. I need you inside me.” The plea went straight to my cock. I glanced at the bandage wrapped around her upper arm, gritting my teeth a moment before I forced myself to take a breath.

Reaching out, I wrapped my fingers around her waist to resituate her straddling me, so the slick cleft of her slid torturously against my cock. I resisted the urge to thrust deep, instead watching her face for any signs of discomfort. “You okay to be on top, sweet thing?” Sadie laughed softly, breathlessly, as she braced her good hand against my chest. Without a word, she sank slowly onto me, taking me into her clenching, tight wetness inch by glorious inch. “Fuuuuuck…” The word hissed from me as my fingers curled into her behind. “Christ, yes, Sadie.” When she was finally situated atop me, I forced my eyes to open so I could look up at her. She was concentrated on the place where we were joined and the sight of her staring at it so intently was enough to make my cock twitch inside of her. “Look at me.” The demand left me impulsively, but she followed my directions, her heated, honed gaze rising to meet mine. “Look at me, Sadie,” I repeated, shifting ever so slightly so I could arch my hips up against hers, driving deeper. She gasped, but her gaze never left mine. My grip on her firm, I worked my cock into her in a steady mind-blowing rhythm that was completely unlike any experience I’d ever had. I was used to getting things in fast and dirty, to finding my release again and again, but this time, it wouldn’t be like that. I needed to make sure Sadie found her pleasure —enough to dull her pain. I wanted to see her as she came, needed to see her. I brought her that pleasure, and I wanted to be the first and the last. She moaned my name, her grip slipping up to my shoulder to squeeze tightly. She began to move her hips against mine, the water sloshing around us. We were going to soak the carpet, the floor, and everything beyond, but I didn’t give two shits. All I cared about was how amazing she felt around me, how she was everything I’d ever fucking wanted. Sadie could look at me and see me. Not the fighter or the cash cow. Not the sugar daddy or the badboy bruiser. She knew me. I watched her as her breath stuttered, as the muscles in her shoulders and abdomen tightened and her eyes finally fluttered shut. She came in a long serious of contractions around my cock that had me gripping the sides of the bathtub for dear life. Sadie worried her full lower lip as she came down, her head sagging forward. Her blonde hair curtained around us as she caught her breath, and she opened her eyes so I could see the gleam of satisfaction in them. I raised my head to press my mouth to hers and kissed her slowly, tasting every inch of her mouth, tugging at her lower lip in the way I knew drive her wild. And while I kissed her, I started to move again, catching her little gasping moans against my mouth as I started working on her again. I’d hurt her, and even if I never meant to do it again, that didn’t mean I wasn’t going to make up for it. All night, if need be.


The next few days were a pleasant distraction from the real world. Griffin refused to let me out of his sight, which I allowed for the simple reason that I didn’t want him out of mine, and, for most of the time, we lounged around in bed. He told me about his parents, his past, and how he decided to become a fighter just as much to continue Riley’s legacy as to build his own. I told him about my upbringing, my very vanilla parents, and the path that led me to work at Grind. “Quit.” When I admitted to him that I wasn’t quite sure why I still stuck around, Griffin, as always, had a very blunt answer. “I’ll pay you to write whatever you want. You can sell to travel magazines, newspapers, whatever the hell you feel like.” Even as my heart swelled, I forced myself not to jump on the opportunity. I was already falling for the man more and more every day—I needed to keep a clear head at least until this business with Ivan blew over. But it was hard. Hard when Griffin showed me new heights of pleasure every day, babied me because of my rapidly healing injury, and constantly heaped praise the likes of which I’d never heard on me. Certainly, the man could be crass. He could be a brute and an absolute asshole. But he was my asshole. “Don’t put any clothes on.” As we lounged around in bed sometime around noon on the fourth day, I pouted at his demand. I’d been naked for almost as long as I’d been in his apartment, and the man never let me wear so much as a robe. “Griffin, I’m cold.” My complaint might not have been very genuine, but I thought I was being pretty adventurous just by being naked with him half the day in bed. In the city, with tons of people and the media peeping, walking around his apartment naked was still something I would have to get used to. “Like hell you are. The air isn’t even on,” he drawled, reaching over to pull me back into bed. His mouth found the curve of my hip, remarking the love bite there so I shuddered before he clutched me closed. His breath fell hotly against the back of my neck and I sighed in contentment. Despite how demanding he could be, there was no place I felt safer than in Griffin’s arms. “I’m so fucked.” At his low murmur, I turned in his arms to face him, arching a brow. “How’s that?” Griffin straightened slightly to look down at me. In the few days we’d barely emerged from the bedroom, he’d acquired quite the scruff over his cheeks and chin, and I had the beard burn to prove it. He reached down to tug my good hand to his mouth, sucking first one finger, then two into his mouth, and I bit back a moan. “’Cause…sweet Sadie…I gotta admit…before you, I didn’t really hold to the idea of monogamy.”

The word made both of my brows shoot up to my hairline. “I was a bastard. I can’t deny that. I’m still a fucking bastard—you probably know that better than anyone. But…maybe I’m a little less of one because of you.” Slowly, I shook my head, even as my heart started to thud rapidly in my chest. “I’m…not sure I follow.” Griffin smirked. “All that schooling and you don’t even know when someone’s telling you they’re in love with you? Damn, baby. What a fucking waste.” I stared at him as my brain summarily shut down. Griffin…Griffin Webb had just admitted…he was in love with me? My lips parted slightly in surprise as I stared at him, trying to reconcile my head and my heart. While the former was still recovering, I didn’t think my heart had ever felt so full. Griffin was in love with me. “You…” I couldn’t even get the words out. “I…” “Will not be putting on a stitch of clothing.” He cut me off firmly, pressing his mouth firmly to mine and affectively re-scrambling my brain. “Unless it’s a sexy white dress.” I almost fell off the bed in shock. “You’re joking.” At my expression, Griffin burst into laughter, reaching across the bed to yank me back into safe territory. I’d never seen him so unabashedly…happy. So carefree. “I am,” he revealed lowly against my neck, before nipping at my ear intimately. “But I might not be in six months or so.” While I was still stunned, he kissed me again. We were still kissing, his tongue stroking against mine deliciously, when his phone buzzed on the bedside table. With a low groan, Griffin parted from me only reluctantly to reach over and check the caller ID. The sight of whatever number it was made him scowl. “It’s Riley. Gotta take this, babe.” “Sure.” Sitting up, Griffin perched on the edge of the bed, about a foot from my head. I took the opportunity to watch his back muscles work gloriously beneath his skin. Reaching out, I stroked over the line of his spine, reveling at the velvety feel of skin pulled taut over pure steel. So absorbed was I in my task that I didn’t catch a word of Griffin’s conversation. He turned around to catch my hand and press his talented mouth to my palm in a relatively chaste kiss. “You catch any of that?”

I shook my head. After all, honesty was always the best policy. Griffin smirked. “Riley’s entered me in an impromptu tournament tonight. He thinks it will be a good way to get back in the public eye, keep my skills up until the trial.” Right. The murder trial. I pursed my lips together at the thought. There was no way they would find him guilty. He’d been acting in self-defense. Instead of worrying about it, I asked about the match. “Tough opponents?” He shrugged massive shoulders. “No idea. I won’t know the fighting roster until I show up.” He stood, sliding out of my grip to stretch, and my mouth watered at the lines of his bare body. “Which means I have some training to get in before tonight.” I just gazed up at him plaintively, slowly inching the sheet down over my chest until I freed a nipple for his perusal. Griffin’s eyes narrowed and he growled at the sight, his cock twitching in interest. Instead of attacking me, however, he just turned back to the bedside table, slamming a drawer open to extract his wallet. A gleaming black credit card landed on the bedspread next to me and I stared at it curiously. “What’s this?” “What you’re going to use to buy a sexy-ass dress to wear to my fight,” he replied tautly. When I opened my mouth to refuse, Griffin merely fixed me with a hard glare. “Not a request, Sadie.” When I pouted, his gaze softened somewhat and he reached across the bed to stroke my cheek briefly. “Inspire me to win, sweet thing. You don’t want me to lose, do you?” Well, when he put it like that…


A few hours later, I found myself along with my police escort in the green room behind a smaller arena in which the tournament would take place. I’d decided that I was going to kill Griffin. When he’d given me his credit card to go shopping, he hadn’t told me that I’d have to take a cop with me. It was intimidating enough to have to search for a sexy dress on my own, but knowing someone was following me? Even if they were undercover? It had been embarrassing as hell. I only hoped the dress I wore was what he was looking for. I bought a slinky black number, dangerously low cut in the front and back, along with a pair of black spiky pumps that cost more than I

made in a week. To top it off, I’d gone and had my hair done, tamed into an elegant updo with a few wisps framing my face; along with my makeup. I had no idea what the woman at the counter had done, but I didn’t look like Sadie Warner. I looked like someone who belonged at the side of one of the world’s foremost MMA fighting champions. As I waited for the pre-fight press conference to start, I took my place along the back wall. At eight o’clock exactly, a number of fighters entered, both amateur and professional. When an impromptu tournament like this one was thrown together, there was a chance for amateurs to move up the ladder, as well as for professionals to get knocked on their asses. I could only hope that didn’t mean trouble for Griffin. I recognized my cop bodyguard a few seats away, pretending to be an astute reporter as he cased the joint for danger. It would have been almost comical if I didn’t still carry the very real evidence of how real the danger was around my left upper arm. Once the press conference started, all of the fighters were given an opportunity to make a statement, and I only half-listened to most of them. After all, I had never been terribly interested in the sport, only in Griffin. When the reporters finally reached Griffin, however, he looked up and his gaze caught mine across the crowded room. I raised my good arm to waggle my fingers at him coyly and he stared at me, absolutely slack-jawed, for almost a full ten seconds. “Mr. Webb?” An insistent reporter repeated his question. “Do you think you’ll have any trouble maintaining your standings through tonight’s event?” I watched with no small amount of amusement as Griffin snapped back to the present, all but glaring at the reporter as he growled his answer. He was looking in fine fighting form—but in my opinion, Griffin’s form was always pretty fine. He wore his customary dark shorts and silk robe, and between every question, he stared at me like he was on the cusp of shoving his way through the room and taking me against that very wall. The thought made my panties immediately wet and I drew in a shuddering breath. No need for that. I wouldn’t get my hands on him for a while, so I didn’t need to work myself up. When the press conference dispersed, Riley tried to rush Griffin back to the locker rooms, but he jerked back for a moment to fix me with one final, heated glance before he went. When I took my seat in the VIP section, I had not one single iota of inadequacy. There might have been ten women in the same section as me, all dressed to the nines and, as usual, fighting for Griffin’s attention. I had no issue playing it cool, my eyes fixed on the cage as I waited for him to appear. Unlike my previous experience in the VIP section, this time, the few male reporters there salivated over me as openly as they did the other women—if not more so. Griffin was one of the first fighters in the tournament, and when he appeared, the entire crowd leapt to

their feet. His name was like a catalyst, a shot heard round the world. I was on my feet with the rest of them, and before Griffin inserted his mouthpiece, he took the mic from the ref. “This one’s for you, baby.” He thrust a hand out, pointing unmistakably through the crowd in my direction. All at once, my image was up on the Jumbotron. My cheeks flamed even as pride burned in my chest and Griffin winked at me, kissing at the mic before handing it back to the ref. He was trying to embarrass me—and I loved it. When I sat down, I ignored every murderous glare from every woman in the VIP section around me. Who gave a shit about them? Griffin had made his preferences perfectly clear.


I was off. As I threw a punch, then a roundhouse kick, I tried in vain to clear my mind. All those hours of training with Riley before the tournament and I’d been utterly and completely focused. I’d hit all my marks; my strikes had been up to speed. Then, the moment I got in the ring, something was just…off. Well, if you wanted to get nitpicky, I’d lost my concentration the moment I’d seen Sadie in the press ready room. What the hell was she wearing? When I asked her to get a dress, I hadn’t thought she’d be out to take my dick in her hand in front of ten thousand people. She looked like a complete goddamned knock out, her tits ready to fall out at any minute. I kept wanting to look at her, to really look at her. But that shit was impossible when some guy was trying to take my head off. He was good. Almost got me in a headlock not once, but twice—then again, I wasn’t quite on top of my game. When the round went past twenty seconds, even I was exasperated with me. My moves were sluggish, and instead of concentrating on the man in front of me, I was concentrated on the golden haired beauty across the stadium. In a fit of frustration, I lashed out, kicking my opponent’s feet from beneath him before catching him across the jaw with a powerful blow. He was out like a light, and the crowd roared. But I only had eyes for Sadie. As the ref held my hand above my head, I spit out my mouthpiece, weaving and bobbing until I finally caught her eye. I jerked my head backwards towards the locker rooms before I was ushered off the stage and hoped she got the message. The next round of the tournament started right after I stepped down, and I strode into the maze of back rooms behind the stadium. The next two guys to fight were both pros—Joey Yates and Magnus Wright.

I beat Yates by knockout but Magnus is a big guy. He’d never picked me for a fight and I wasn’t too eager to go toe to toe with him either. If he got disqualified early, I wouldn’t have to, but, somehow, I doubted that would be the case. I watched his fight start on the monitors backstage, wincing as he almost immediately knocked out of few of Yate’s teeth. To his merit, Yates kept his feet and rushed at him, and they went at it like fucking men. I, however, rocked on the balls of my feet, watching the match with half my attention. It was five long minutes before Sadie finally strutted down the hallway towards me, and I took her in from head to toe like a leopard stalking its prey. Goddamn. That dress hugged her every curve, the deep V of the neckline dropped almost to her waist. Her hair was perfectly coiffed, and those scarlet red lips… She waltzed right up to me, cool as a fucking cucumber, before jutting a hand out on a hip to arch her brow imperiously at me. “You needed me, Griffin?” Understatement of the century. Without a word, I yanked her into the nearest available rub down room, locking the door behind us. There was little in the room besides the actual massage table and a shelf of towels, but I didn’t need much. “You fucking minx.” I could barely get the words out, I was so goddamned hard. “I haven’t been able to think straight since that little stunt you pulled at the press conference.” “Stunt?” she replied innocently, unable to keep from smiling slightly. “I waved at you, Griffin.” Taking hold of her hips, I hoisted her upwards to carry her over to the massage table. “You eyefucked me.” Breathless laughter burst from her lips a moment before I dropped to me knees before her, shoving her dress up over her hips. Beneath, she wore a minute scrap of white lace that made me snarl. “You’re going to pay, Sadie.” Without any pretense, I shoved my face between her legs. Sadie let out a shriek that echoed around the small room. Within an instant, the thin material of her panties was drenched with both my attentions and her readiness, and I yanked it aside to get at the sweet cream beneath. Sweet fucking Sadie in such an ungodly position, her knees over my shoulders as I ate at her like a man starved.

That would teach her. My tongue slid over the creamy cleft of her before fastening onto her clit, licking and sucking hungrily. “Griffin!” She gasped, squirming against the table. “Fuck, Griffin! Be gentle!” “Should have thought about that before you wore this damn dress,” I rasped, my tongue flicking at the tiny bud of her pleasure. I nipped at her thigh and she yelped as I turned her over onto her stomach, careful of her injured arm. The massage table was built to have someone lie prone with a hole for their face. That hole was convenient enough for one of Sadie’s knees, and I guided it there, leaving her standing on one leg and beautifully spread for me. I barely took the time to free my cock from my shorts before I was thrusting into her, driving her hips flush against the table. She screamed my name, clutching at the opposite corner with her good hand as I seated myself. “Fuck,” I groaned, my eyes momentarily rolling backwards in my head. She was always so wet and hot and goddamned perfect. But right now, unfortunately, I couldn’t linger. Leaning over her, I reached forward, spreading her lower lips to find her clit, right above where we were joined. “Sorry, baby. Gotta make this quick.” I fucked her hard and fast, the wet sound of our fucking filling the room as the mirror steamed up. Every time I filled her, Sadie let out a strangled cry, and I showed her little mercy. I delved hard and deep with every stroke, until the leg she stood on was trembling and her juices were sliding down her thighs. Her inner muscles soon started spasming around me, clenching at me almost desperately, and I knew she was close. I put more pressure on her clit, rubbing firmly as my thrusts migrated the table across the room. “Come for me, Sadie. Come now.” My sweet thing didn’t disappoint me. She seized up around me so tightly I thought I might have died and gone to heaven, milking my orgasm from me in long, satisfying spurts. A silken sheen of liquid gushed down her thighs and I groaned at the sight of it as she all but wailed in pleasure. When I pulled out of her, Sadie’s legs wavered for a long moment before collapsing completely and I caught her to pick her up and set atop the massage table once more. Her expression was dazed and well fucked, and she tried to glare at me as she caught her breath. “You’re a monster.” I grinned wickedly as I reached past her for a towel to hand to her. “And you’re a mess. Gushing all over the place. Sweet squirting Sadie.”

She threw the towel at my head and I figured that was a good time to take my leave. God, I loved that woman. On my way out, I glanced at the monitors and saw, unsurprisingly, that Wright had beat Yates by knockout. Which meant that he would be my next opponent. I headed back to the locker room to towel off and get ready, and when I wiped Sadie’s decadent musk from me, it was only reluctantly. One thing was for sure though: my head was clear. I had exactly what I needed.

The next match lasted roughly five minutes and went the full three rounds. When I was next up, I arrived next to the cage just to see Sadie slip back into her seat as discreetly as she could on wobbly legs. I’d done the best I could not to mess up her hair or makeup, but a man could only do so much. With a final glance, I stepped into the cage and found myself confronted with Wright. He was fucking massive, and if the rumors about him were true, he wouldn’t go down easily. Especially not if he stood to win my title from this fight. When he grinned at me, I saw that he had all of his teeth, and I knew this fight wouldn’t be an easy one. I didn’t even have time to glance at Sadie before we started. The bell rang and Wright rushed at me, all rage and power. But, I soon realized, little technique. His kicks didn’t have the reach they needed to, and so it was easy to dance around him. At least until he hit me. I got cocky, and one of Wright’s mediocre kicks caught me in the chest with enough force to knock the breath from me. Atop that, I was pretty sure he cracked a rib or two. As the crowd groaned, I stumbled backwards into the wall of the cage, narrowly avoiding another blow meant for my head. As I ducked out from underneath his reach, Wright lashed out, catching my side—right where Vlad had tried to carve me up a week earlier. A hiss of pain escaped me and I turned on him, trying to land a punch.

Wright didn’t really have the speed, but he could block like a motherfucker. I couldn’t even get a hit in. I went high, I went low, I tried to go around, but I only really succeeded when I went straight for him —and that didn’t end well for me. I caught one of Wright’s gigantic fists to my face and my nose immediately sprayed blood, almost certainly broken. Riley’s string of curses sounded from outside the cage as he screamed at me to end it. Fuck. I hadn’t had someone break this many of my bones in half an age. It pissed me off enough that I lashed out with everything I had. When I really turned on my speed, Wright couldn’t block fast enough. My punches found his jaw, his neck, his abdomen; ultimately, a jack-knife kick found his face with pinpoint accuracy. He crumbled to the floor with a groan that echoed around the arena. There was a single, brief moment of silence before the crowd erupted. Over the screaming and cheering, I gazed out at them, wondering what they got out of this enterprise. Me, I just liked to hit things. As far as I was concerned, there was a bit of sadism in these people. As the pain in my nose faded to a dull ache, I turned triumphantly to the VIP section to see what Sadie thought of my knockout. No doubt she’d be pissed as hell that I let my opponent get a few hits in on me but I’d be damned if she wasn’t just a little proWait. Where’d she go? Sadie’s seat was empty. The announcer was raising my hand and proclaiming me one of the finalists to go on to the tournament the next day, but I heard none of it. Sadie was gone. It would have been easier to look for her if the tournament hadn’t been breaking up. Hundreds of people were flooding the aisles, but as far as I could tell, none of them were my blonde-haired, honey-eyed goddess. I took the pack Riley offered me for my nose but waved off the doc in favor of rushing to the locker room to dig my cell phone out. The moment I had it in hand, I dialed Sadie’s number. I was probably overreacting. She might have gone to the bathroom or something; she might be on her

way backstage to meet me even as I made the call. But my gut told me something was wrong. At that moment, the phone clicked as Sadie picked up, and relief flooded through me. “Sadie, where are y—” “Good evening, Griffin.” My heart dropped into my stomach as my chest tightened, choking off my breath. I’d recognize that smug, oily, superior Russian tone anywhere. “Ivan.” I barely managed to get the word out past my taut jaw. “Nice to hear you remember me. I thought you might have forgotten…what with your pretty new toy.” My stomach turned to ice. Sadie. They had my Sadie. Rage burned, hot and rancid, in my throat, and I squeezed the phone hard enough to crack the plastic outer coating. “If you lay one fucking finger on her, I swear to God, I’ll gut you like a fish and feed your peons all the caviar in your belly.” Ivan, holding all the cards, only chuckled amusedly at my threat. “Now, now, Griffin. Calm down. I’m sure we can come to an arrangement. The blonde will come to no harm, as long as you give me the money you owe.” Money. It was always about money. But this time, I couldn’t fight; I couldn’t wheedle my way out. They had Sadie, and unless I paid, they were going to hurt her. I had no doubt about that. “How much?”


I should have been terrified. Mind you, I was very, very afraid, but I couldn’t decide what I feared more: the men holding me at gunpoint or my own thinly veiled rage. Everything had been going perfectly. Well, perfectly unless you counted the fact that Griffin had ruined my underwear and I probably wouldn’t walk straight for a week because he just had to scratch his itch mid MMA tournament. I was all settled in to watch him participate in his final fight with a particularly gruesome-looking opponent when I’d been called backstage. Assuming that it was Griffin, I’d hurried back—leaving my undercover cop bodyguard far behind. That was when they’d snatched me, fucking cowards. I was grabbed, roughly fondled, and dragged the entire way through a series of hidden back hallways until I emerged in the alley behind the arena. My captors—both of them large, pot-bellied, and lascivious—had all but thrust me towards the waiting limo. Where I met the infamous Ivan. He was every bit as disgusting as Griffin had warned me, and he spared me no more respect than his henchmen. The moment they had me inside the limo, my hands were tied with zip tie—not a thought was given when I protested the angle on my injured arm. “You are not here to be comfortable. You’re here to be the bait. And what sweet, sweet bait you are,” the small, black-haired Russian reminded me, giving me a lingering once over that made me physically ill When he reached for me, I must have momentarily lost my mind, because I tried to bite the fucker. Almost got him too. While I got a momentary rush of adrenaline from my little stunt, Ivan didn’t seem too pleased. On the contrary, he drew a small pistol from his belt and pointed it at me, making my insides turn to water. “Do not toy with me, kukla,” he warned me, shaking his head with a shark-like grin. “If, for one moment, I think you will cost me more than I will gain, I will not hesitate to blow your pretty brains all over the pavement.”

At that moment, my phone started to buzz in the small bag I’d bought. In my struggles against Ivan’s henchman, the bag had fallen to the floor of the limo, and I stared at it in horror. There was only one person I knew would be calling. The match must be over, and Griffin was looking for me. Ivan’s grin was cruel. “You’re not going to get that?” What a complete asshole. “No problem. I get it for you.” Reaching down, he emptied the contents of my purse onto the floor to extract my cell phone. Ivan answered it with the press of a button and my heart sank. “Good evening, Griffin.” Though I couldn’t make out the fighter’s exact words, Griffin’s rage was palpable over the line. Ivan, however, took it all with a grain of salt. “Now, now, Griffin. Calm down. I’m sure we can come to an arrangement. The blonde will come to no harm, as long as you give me the money you owe.” All this for money. Money that wasn’t even his! “Five million and not a penny less.” My eyes widened at Ivan’s demand. “You have ten minutes to bring the money to the back alley of the arena or you will find quite the messy surprise.” With that, he hung up, and I stared at him in horror as he tossed my phone out the window. When Ivan next spoke, his tone practically oozed self-satisfaction. “There is Griffin Webb for you. The world’s ultimate fighter and the world’s ultimate pussy.” At the insult, my newfound temper took hold of me again. I spat in Ivan’s face without hesitation, struggling against my bonds. “You could never be half the man he is,” I hissed vehemently, all but shaking in anger. To my shock and revulsion, Ivan only reached up to rub his fingers through my saliva on his cheek before inserting them into his mouth to suck clean. His desirous smile was sickening. “We’ll just see about that, kukla.” He reached for me, and since I was bound, there was little I could do to prevent it. While a man on either side of me held me still, Ivan ran his fingers indulgently over the swells of my breasts before creeping further and further southward. My breath came in harsh pants and I trembled in terror. A harsh bark in Russian distracted all three of them. We all looked forward to see the driver indicating a figure striding towards the limo with grim determination. When I saw that it was Griffin, clutching a large duffel bag, my heart leapt.

Ivan laughed loudly. “Right on time, your lover boy.” Taking my arm in a bruising grip, Ivan shoved open the door, using me as a shield as he pressed the cold steel of the gun to my temple. The feel of it made me shudder as he urged me forward. “Nice to see you again, Griffin. We never get to spend much time alone, just me and you.” I didn’t think I’d ever seen Griffin look so murderous in my life. His green eyes glittered with malicious intent as he stopped a mere three feet away from where Ivan held me hostage. His nose, I noticed, was swollen and stuffed with tissues—probably broken. Despite the grievousness of the situation, my heart went out to him. I hated to see him hurt. “Here.” He tossed the bag he held across the space that separated him from Ivan. “Take your money and give me Sadie.” Without letting go of me, Ivan knelt, unzipping the bag with one hand to reveal more cash then I’d ever seen altogether in my entire life. At the sight of it, my eyes widened and Ivan laughed harshly. “Griffin, Griffin! If I had known this was the way to get you to pay, I’d have taken your little toy sooner!” A dangerous growl escaped the dark-haired fighter. “Let. Her. Go.” “I don’t know…” I gasped as Ivan suddenly pulled me closer, his tongue sliding slimily over my ear. “Perhaps I keep her…to ensure your good behavior for the future.” When I was in the hospital and Griffin told me what happened in the beach house, it frightened me. He said he snapped with such cold conviction, with such certainty. I could never really fathom that kind of violence, and so I had to trust what he told me. This time, when Griffin lost his rein on his temper, I watched it happen. Watched the fire consume his gaze as he moved forward with lightning speed. Ivan panicked. He pointed the gun at Griffin and it went off once before the larger man kicked it from his hand. Griffin’s foot struck Ivan’s chest with enough raw force that several somethings cracked and the man dropped like a ten-pound bag of potatoes. And he let me go. I hit the pavement hard on my hands and knees, skinning them. But that was nothing compared to what was happening to Ivan. Griffin was on top of him, and a polite word for what he was doing might have been pulverizing the man’s face. After five or six punches, not much remained of his cheeks and jaw, and I felt my stomach roil even as a strange sort of satisfaction suffused me.

Somehow, I forced myself to look back at the limo, where Ivan’s friends looked like they were about to take action. “Griffin!” But he didn’t hear me. He was too busy beating the stuffing out of Ivan. And then, just like that, the air filled with sirens. Cops burst from the arena and before anyone in the limo could get away, they were extracting every Russian and putting them in cuffs. Four more police cars arrived and two cops leapt on Griffin in an attempt to pry him from on top of Ivan. By the time they did, the Russian mobster’s face had been permanently rearranged. He was taken away to an ambulance, cuffed to a stretcher, barely breathing. “Fuck!” I watched Griffin rake his hands through his hair before he repeated the curse, louder. “Fuck!” And then he seemed to realize I was lying there on the pavement, and all the fight drained from his gaze. “Sadie!” He rushed to my side, pulling me up and into his arms as he all but crushed me. “Fucking God, Sadie, are you okay?” He pulled back just long enough to cup my face, looking it over, before he kissed me long and hard, almost drawing blood. “Tell me you’re okay.” I smiled weakly. “Just a few bumps and bruises. I’ll be alright.” And surprisingly enough, I was. The momentary terror was over. All the tension that had built up in me over the past weak dissipated at the sight of cops swarming over the scene, putting those who had it in for Griffin away where they belonged. If this was the way Griffin rolled—moment-to-moment, unexpected—then I supposed I was going to have to get used to it. If I wanted him, I had to take the whole package. Even if it meant a bit of danger. “Good job, Webb.” At the familiar voice of Detective Addison, my eyes widened. He stepped up to Griffin, nodding in greeting to me. “Ivan Ishnakoff was no small fish. When he sings, he should give us more than enough information to drop any murder charges against you. Hell, we might solve half the drug crimes in the city. You did good.” Glancing toward Ivan’s body, the detective grimaced slightly. “Though he’ll be lucky if he can talk anytime soon.” Griffin snorted. “You going to arrest me?” Holding up his hands defensively, Addison shook his head. “Hell no. You’d probably kill me.” His comment made Griffin’s lips quirk slightly. “I don’t hurt cops.” I couldn’t help it; a breathless laugh escaped me.

Jesus, this was insanity. Utter insanity—and I chose it. I chose Griffin Webb.


To say it was a long day was a fucking understatement. By the time we finished wrapping up with detectives, I spoke with Riley, and the details of the tournament were ironed out, I was bone tired. Though I had never let a woman drive any of my cars, I let Sadie drive the Jag back to my penthouse, and I could find nothing to say about her skills. “At least,” she pointed out as she glided into my parking space, “I don’t go zero to fucking two hundred within the city limits.” I grinned at her snark. “You should try it some time. You might like it.” She rolled her eyes, stepping out of the car. “Bite me.” “Just tell me where, sweet thing.” I wanted to kiss her. To hold her and touch her now that everything was over, but more than that I just wanted to sleep. My nose hurt like a motherfucker and I was sure Riley would be on my case the next day about an explanation for all this. Him and the media. When I let us into the penthouse, Sadie sighed, glancing around. “What?” My brow shot up at the sound and she merely made a face. “It’s huge, and it’s gorgeous, but you have to admit, Griffin, this place screams bachelor pad.” I chuckled as I sank down on the nearest couch. “Well, since your fine little ass is here so much, why don’t you move in and redecorate?” That look of shock never got old. Never. “You’re joking.” I smiled, shaking my head. “Definitely not.” And I wasn’t. I didn’t like the idea of spending less time with Sadie than I did without her, and the best way to rectify that situation was to always have her by my side; especially now, without the threat of Russian mob assassination.

“Well…” She slid onto the couch beside me, pressing that lithe form against me in her killer black dress. “Maybe you could use a bit of a woman’s touch.” I wasn’t about to paint my apartment pink, but I definitely wasn’t protesting the way her slender fingers encircled my cock. All my exhaustion melted away as Sadie began to stroke me, and I wondered if this was what absolute bliss felt like. For all the intricacies of her dress, the damn thing slid off Sadie in one long piece and slithered to the floor as I watched. Beneath it, she was completely bare—and I was at full attention instantly. “Where…where are your fucking panties?” I managed to croak. “You ruined them.” She stuck her tongue out at me teasingly. “I had to get rid of them.” “You little…Jesus…” Before I could stop her, Sadie extracted my dick from my pants and set to giving me one of her amazing blowjobs. I was almost upset that it didn’t last longer, but it was my impatience that killed the experience. After only a few minutes of that sweet mouth of hers working my shaft, I tugged her onto my lap—and onto my erection. Once I was inside her, the look of nirvana on her face was almost enough to undo me. “Griffin, that feels so good…” “Does it, baby?” My tongue flicked at one of her swollen nipples as I started to move. “Tell me how it feels.” “It…Griffin!” It may have been impolite, but I shifted so I could take hold of her thighs and stood up as she tried to tell me, holding her suspended in mid-air as I continued to fuck her. From this angle, she had absolutely no escape. Sadie had no choice but to take every inch of my cock—and take it she did. As she moaned and writhed, I watched her face, completely intoxicated. She wasn’t doing this because she got something out of it, because I would buy her jewelry or trinkets. She wasn’t a rabid fan and she wasn’t someone who would toss me aside. After a lifetime of being betrayed by almost everyone I cared for, I had Sadie. I loved Sadie. The very thing I once thought made me weak lifted me up, made me stronger than I’d ever been. Love bit me on the ass when I least expected it, and now, somehow, I wasn’t willing to let it go. I wasn’t willing to let her go.


Sneak Preview of OWNED BY THE MOB BOSS

Some lines are meant to be crossed – over, and over, and over again.

I knew she was desperate, and so I used her for what I needed most: an heir.

Does that make me bad? Probably. But I’ve never claimed to be a nice guy. I want an heir to carry on the Kovalsky name. I’m the last of my family, ever since my most hated enemy murdered my parents. When Rachel offered herself up for the job, I knew I wouldn’t regret having her sweet little body be mine for however long it took to get her pregnant. I make her scream until she’s hoarse. I want to own her, to brand her, to fill her with my child. But now she’s in danger of being hurt by the same man who killed my parents.

And when he takes Rachel and the baby she carries, I know I’ll do anything to protect them. It’s time to teach the world a lesson: Never, ever steal from the mob boss.

Chapter One Rachel

I slammed my foot on the gas, my tiny car leaped forward, and I merged onto the highway. I only had five minutes to make it to into work on time, and I had at least an eight-minute drive there. Crap. I was never late until my mom’s diagnosis, and I hated being late. It was unprofessional, and I held myself to a higher standard…at least I tried to. Luckily, traffic wasn’t too bad, and I didn’t see a cop anywhere, so I just kept my foot down on the gas, the needle climbing and climbing, driving fast but not recklessly. I merged at the last second onto the exit ramp. The driver behind me honked, and I waved at him. “Yeah, yeah,” I muttered. “Running late. So sue me.” Okay, so maybe driving a little recklessly. Somehow, I parked right at eight on the nose. I grabbed my purse and dashed inside. Not late after all. Amazing. I normally wasn’t like this—so behind the ball. I was the kind of girl who did everything right, did everything by the books. I never had a speeding ticket, never broke the law. Keeping order was the only way I could try to make sense of the chaos of the rest of the world. So many things were going wrong lately that I just couldn’t handle it all. At least when I was here, in the office, I felt like I had a little bit of control, like I could make a difference, like I could affect the outcome. So unlike how things were back home with Mom and her damned diagnosis. Maybe I needed to cut loose some. Should call my best friend and go out for drinks. With what money? I wondered if we still had some from that bottle of rum. I needed to try to release some of my stress. Yeah, I played by the rules, but I was still alive. I still had fun. It had just been a little while since I last had any. And I knew how to party, how to have fun. Work hard, play harder. That had always been my mantra. That was until my mom got sick, though. That changed everything. She had stage three breast cancer. Head down, I started toward my cubicle, mentally preparing myself for the day, when a throat cleared behind me. “Rachel.” Shoulders slumping, I grimaced. Greg Dunaway. My boss. The last person I wanted to talk to today. He was always a miserable thing.

After screwing my lips into a semblance of a smile, I turned around to face him. “Hi, Greg. What can I do for you?” “Can we talk?” He didn’t wait for an answer, just stalked off toward his large office, leaving me no choice but to follow him. Uh-oh. The bagel I’d shoved into my mouth as I had raced to the car from my house wasn’t sitting well in my stomach. I swallowed hard and suppressed a cough. It was my imagination, I knew, but I felt like a piece of bagel was caught in my throat. Or maybe that was just a ball of worry. I was so stressed out lately. I’d only been in Greg’s office one other time—when he had interviewed me five years ago. His father had been sick, so Greg had stepped in, even though Greg hadn’t been the big boss yet. An office job wasn’t that great of a position, but I was good at my job. I worked hard and never complained. And, boy, were there complainers employed here. A bunch of women worked here, and so there was a ton of cattiness too. I never bothered with any of that. Just did my work and left. Didn’t have a lot of friends here, but I wasn’t here for fun and games. That was after hours, with my best friend, Denise. We’d go shopping or out to eat or go to the bar. Of course, with my mom needing my help taking care of her, I hadn’t had much time for fun with Denise either. Just work and Mom and rinse and repeat. Greg entered his office first. He walked around his huge desk but didn’t sit down. I moved to stand in front of one of the two chairs in front of his desk but didn’t sit down either. I still felt uneasy, and I wasn’t going to be the one to break the awkward silence. He cleared his throat, bent down, and fiddled with some of the papers on his desk. He wouldn’t look me in the eye, and that stress level of mine skyrocketed. “It’s not always easy to do what is best for a company.” I couldn’t breathe. This couldn’t be happening. I was a damned good employee! He had no grounds for this! He knew about my mom, about the bills. My mom couldn’t work anymore, her health was too poor, which meant that she had had no choice but to quit, and of course that meant she no longer had health insurance. All of her bills for her appointments and for treatment, and she had a ton of bills and many more to come yet, were all out of pocket, and the bills were steep and never ending. “I hate that it’s come down to this,” Greg said, still not looking at me, “but downsizing is a part of the business, and unfortunately—” I couldn’t listen to another word. “I’m the fastest typist out of everyone. I work hard. I don’t slack off or make excuses or take a cigarette break every two minutes.” So I was throwing Jeanine under the bus. It pissed off everyone how often she would take them and for how long too. And so what if I was rambling? I was pissed and had every right to be. “I am the longest tenured—”

“You’ve been late to work a lot recently,” he pointed out. He glanced up, but he was staring over my head instead of at me. “I am not,” I said hotly, putting my hands on my hips. Cutting in majorly close, yes. Actually late, nope. Not even once. Somehow. He raised his bushy eyebrows. I never realized it before, but they definitely look like hairy worms. “You’ve been taking a lot of time off.” Greg held up a piece of paper that I assumed had a list of my time off. I didn’t bother to look at it. I knew how much time I had taken. Just about all of my sick days and all but two of my vacation days. I winced. That I couldn’t deny. “My vacation time—” “Has all been used up.” What? I was sure I still had two days yet! It was possible I made a miscalculation, and I hadn’t figured out what I would do once my paid time ran out. Greg didn’t care to give people time off without pay. “Your sick days too,” he continued. He laid the paper on his desk and tapped at certain spots. I didn’t care what he was trying to point out. I was too busy glowering at him. “And I heard from Lydia that you wanted to take a few mornings off without pay too.” I winced again and dropped my gaze from his face to his desk, no longer scowling, more apologetic than anything. No. More defensive than anything. “You know why—” “Why doesn’t matter. Why doesn’t get the job done.” He shook his head. “You are a good worker, and I value everything you’ve done for us this past few years, but—” “You can’t,” I whispered. I needed this job. I had to have it! How could he do this to me? To my mom? I was doing everything I could to keep everything together, both at home and here. I wasn’t sleeping well, between having to care for Mom and worrying about her, but I hadn’t failed Mom, and I hadn’t made any mistakes here at work. Yeah, okay, so sometimes I took naps in my car during my lunch break, and I might have gone over by five minutes here and there, and twice I had left to take Mom to the hospital and had to rush back to work and been a little late getting back then too, but I really was trying to juggle everything as best as I could. I wasn’t Wonder Woman. I wasn’t perfect. “I’m afraid I don’t have a choice in the matter, Rachel.” Greg shook his head again. I never realized what a huge melon of a head he had before. “You are the fastest typist, but you’ve been careless lately.” “I…” I hung my head. I didn’t want to make excuses, and I didn’t want to cry. I blinked rapidly, my eyes burning. If he thought I was careless, that my work was slipping, he was right to fire me.

But he was wrong, and I had to fight this. For Mom. “Careless?” I challenged. I wasn’t that out of it. I would’ve known if I had screwed up! “Can you deny that your work has been compromised as of late?” “I’m doing my best—” “Your best today is not the same best that it had been when you were first hired. I’m sorry, Rachel.” Yeah, sure, he was sorry. He didn’t give a rat’s ass about me or my mom. All he cared about was his stupid company. There was a reason why he had to downsize, and it had nothing to do with how hard his employees were or weren’t working. He had inherited the company from his father, and he just plain wasn’t as savvy a businessman as his father had been. This wasn’t sour grapes talking. This was the truth. “Under the circumstances,” he added, “I can give you a two-week severance package—” “Two weeks,” I said sourly. That was it? All I was getting? What a cheapskate! His father had been the one to hire me, and he’d let go of a few people before he had stepped down two years ago, and I had learned that he always gave a four-week severance package. Not a miserly two! “I wish things were different,” he continued. He rubbed the back of his neck, his gaze on his desk. You would think he was the one getting fired, given how uncomfortable he looked. I knew I wasn’t the first person he had fired, but maybe I was the only one with a sick and possibly dying mother who he had canned. Greg hadn’t looked at me once the entire time he had been firing me, and it just struck such a nerve that I couldn’t handle this final slap in the face. Two-week severance package. He wished things were different. Like hell he did! He was lower than pond scum! “How would you feel,” I asked, fuming mad, “if you were running yourself ragged all day at work while staying up half the night taking care of your mother or worrying about her or trying to find time to run her to her appointments, to sit with her some during chemo, and—” “Personal life—” he started to say to cut me off, but I interrupted him right back. “It can’t just be left at the door,” I said firmly. Was I shouting? Maybe. Did I care if I was? Not a bit. “Not something like this. Don’t do this to me, Greg. I…just give me another chance. I can do this. I can juggle it all, and—” Now he did glance up, and he was staring at my buttoned-down shirt. Odd. He was in his late forties and never once hit on me or any of the other female workers. I didn’t take him for a pig. An ass maybe.

Oh. He wasn’t staring at my chest. He was staring at my buttons and how I hadn’t even been able to button my shirt correctly today. Wow. Okay, so maybe I was a mess, and I couldn’t handle everything. “Damn it, Greg. This isn’t fair.” I didn’t sound like I was whiney. All right. Maybe a little. Whatever it took to get through and crack his shell to his humanity. There had to be a way to get him to see what a dick move this was. “You think I should fire someone else? Who?” he demanded, finally sitting and calmly folding his hands on his desk. “Tell me. I’ll call him or her in, and you can tell him or her that he or she is fired and why they deserve to be fired over you.” I opened and closed my mouth. Jeanine the chain smoker? She had three kids. A single mom. She needed the job as badly as I did, and the others were all decent workers. And that he wanted to push the actual firing onto me wasn’t fair either. What a dick. “None of us should be let go,” I countered, lifting my chin into the air. I made no move to sit. I would stare him down until he caved. If he caved. “I’ve been over the numbers, and someone has to go, and I picked you.” He made it sound so cold and matter of fact. “There will be other firings in other departments. It’s not just you.” That didn’t make me feel any better. Nothing would. Not even rum or an entire bottle of wine or all the chocolate in the world. “You’ve been making the most mistakes lately. Small ones, yes, but I just…” He shook his head. What was he, part dog? I never saw someone shake their head so much before. “What mistakes?” I ground out. Prove it. He sighed and rubbed his forehead. “Do you really want me to go through the last few reports you’ve typed up?” “Yes.” “Wasting time,” he muttered. “Time equals money.” Still muttering, he started typing on his computer. A few minutes later, he shifted the monitor toward me. “Your last report…” Arms crossed, I leaned forward and started to skim. “Where’s an error?” Greg huffed and looked through it himself. “Right…um…this is ridiculous.” “You’re right,” I fumed. “My work has not suffered, so don’t claim that’s why you’re firing me. Be honest about it. Maybe you’re afraid that I will start to make mistakes, but it’s because—”

“With the time you want to take off and will want to take off in the future combined with your lack of focus—you might be able to claim that you haven’t made any mistakes, but even you can’t deny that the amount of work you get done each day is less than it had been previous to…” He turned off his computer. “I just can’t see how I can keep you on when the company is hurting. I’m sorry, Rachel. I am.” I kept staring at his desk, unwilling to look him in the eye, not wanting to see if he had pity in his eyes. I didn’t need pity. I needed this freaking job. And two-weeks' severance? “A joke, right?” I mumbled. He made a sound like a grunt. “Three-weeks' severance,” he said. “That’s the most I can do.” Yippee. That’s so much better. Cheapskates. “Will you need a box to gather your things?” he offered. So this was it. I was just being laid off from my office job. No second chances. Just kicked to the curb. Left to rot. Left without a pot to piss in. I picked up my chin, squared my shoulders, and stared him down as best I could. I wanted to slug him, but I wasn’t about to stoop that low. “I don’t need anything from you.” His jaw dropped. Before he could say anything—I so didn’t want to hear any more of his bull shit—I whirled around and stalked out of his office, my heels clicking on the tile. Ignoring everyone around me, my former coworkers pretending to work while really sneaking glances my way, I continued marching to my cubicle. It was small with a few funny memes tacked up to give me something to look at and break the monotony of the day. From the top drawer I removed my calendar. So many red markings—Mom’s doctor’s appointments or reminders to call specialists for their opinions. Next I pulled out a worn library book—a romance. The only action I was seeing nowadays. I’d broken up with my last boyfriend a few days before Mom had been diagnosed, and I hadn’t had time since to find another one. Not that I needed a guy. I wasn’t ready to settle down yet. I enjoyed my freedom too much to get married anytime soon, which was why I broke up with Sam. He had wanted more of a commitment than I had been willing to give him. Right now, I didn’t want to kiss a guy. I wanted to punch someone out. I never felt this furious before. Normally, I was a much happier person. I’d been called happy-go-lucky once or twice. But that had been before. Before Mom. Before cancer. I really did need a drink or some time out or something. I didn’t like who I was becoming. Miserable. Depressed. Pessimistic. I needed something to turn my life around, but I had no idea what it could be. I had to leave here place as soon as possible. It felt like the walls were closing in on me. Quick as I could, I began packing up my things. I was just starting to grab my magnets from my

computer tower when a redheaded mop popped over the top from the next cubicle over. “You’re here!” Pamela darted around and gave me a quick hug, so quick I couldn’t even return it. Her curls bounced around—although my hair was even curlier than hers, and was a natural brown compared to her dyed strands. “When you showed up late,” she added, “I thought something might’ve gone wrong with your mom.” “Not with her.” I forced a smile and removed a magnet about hump day. I just wanted to get away from this place, leave it behind. Pamela wasn’t really a friend. She wasn’t anything more than the workplace gossip. If I told her about my being fired, everyone would know about it by the time I reached the parking lot. “And I wasn’t late,” I grumbled under my breath. “Wanna talk about it?” she asked eagerly. She had way too much energy this morning. Did she have a triple shot in her coffee? “Not really.” I pinched the bridge of my nose. Already I could feel it—the start of a bad headache. I had been getting a lot of them lately, and I figured stress was the reason for it. Too bad the likelihood of my stress levels going down was zilch. Ignoring Pamela as best as I could, I sat down on my chair and pretended to settle into work, hoping, praying even, that she would get the hint. Sometimes, she could be a little slow, although I had a feeling that might just be her way to try to get more gossip, or maybe to avoid work. Whichever the case, I wished she would find someone else to pry gossip out of or that a supervisor would see her slacking and yell at her to get to work. Should’ve said her name to Greg. But no. One, I wasn’t that person, and two, Pamela was Greg’s second cousin or something like that. They were somehow distantly related. I doubted he would fire her. Which was why she had such a long leash. “You sure?” Pamela pouted, her purple-painted lips tugging downward. “Sure,” I muttered, staring at the computer screen, sending her telepathic messages. Get to work. Leave Rachel alone. Reluctantly, she straightened, still frowning. “Did you hear about—” I grabbed my phone and put it to my ear, pretending it had vibrated. “Hello? Yes. Dr. Franklin, it’s Rachel.” I looked up at her and shrugged as if to say I was sorry. She’d have to leave now, right? Pamela waved and backed away a step or two. Unreal. She still wanted gossip! I pretended to continue the conversation for a few minutes, with long stretches of silence to act like I was listening until, finally, I heard her footsteps retreat. Unbelievable. Breathing out a sigh, I resumed gathering my things. No way had I wanted to continue packing while

she was there. She was smart. She’d put two and two together and realize what was up, and I didn’t need more grief. The last items I gathered were the few pictures I had. One was of my father and me. We were playing tag at the park. Mom had taken the picture. A nice candid shot. My mouth was wide open, probably from laughing, and my dad had just grabbed me for a hug instead of just tapping my shoulder to tag me. It had been taken a week before he died. I had been ten. Massive heart attack. If Mom died, I’d be all alone. Neither had any siblings, so I had no aunts or uncles. I’d be the only Nevison left. It was a sobering thought, especially when I considered how young my parents would be when they died. The other two pictures were of Mom. In the first, she was smiling at someone off screen. She hated having her picture taken so this one was my favorite. The last picture was of the two of us. We had gone to a mother-daughter dance back when I had been in high school. We’d dressed up in poodle skirts, really fifties style. So much fun. She was kind of smiling in this pic too. Happy times. Now she never smiled, and I couldn’t blame her, even though I still tried to get her to. With a grimace, I gathered everything up and laid it all gently in a large pile. It was a little hard to carry everything without a box, but I wasn’t about to go back to Greg and ask for one, and I sure as heck wasn’t going to ask anyone else if they could find me one either. As soon as I got back to the parking lot—without dropping anything by some miracle—my phone really was vibrating from a call. I performed a juggling act of shifting everything to one arm, braced my loaded arm against the car, finagled my keys from my purse, unlocked the door, dumped everything onto the backseat where it scattered like crazy, and then got out my phone. But before I could answer, the caller hung up. Of course. Just my luck. I checked to see who had called. It was Denise Carver, my best friend since, well, forever. We met in the second grade and had been inseparable ever since. Now she, unlike Pamela, I actually wanted to talk to. I climbed inside my car and pulled out of the lot and drove down the street and parked in the back of another random office building, just so no one from my former employer could look out on the parking lot and see me. Didn’t need an audience for what might be a breakdown, which was why I figured it was better to park than to talk and drive at the same time. Denise answered on the first ring. “Hey, girl!” she yelled. “I can’t believe you called me back. I know how you never answer when you’re working unless you’re on lunch. I was leaving you a message.” Must be a heck of a long message, then, unless I didn’t feel the vibration from when she left it. “Anyhow, the reason why I called was because I thought that you and I—” “Whatever you’re planning, I can’t.” My shoulders slumped. Hadn’t had much time for fun with her before this, and now all of my new free time would have to be split between taking care of my mom and finding a new job.

“But you don’t even know the date or what I’m planning,” she whined. “Don’t need to. Can’t afford it.” Can’t afford fun. “I can spot you.” I could just picture her waving her hand to brush my words aside. “No worries. It’s this amazing new band—” I closed my eyes and pinched the bridge of my nose. I loved listening to live music. But it wasn’t the band that I’d have to miss that had me wanting to break down. It was all the weight and the worry about the future and what it would hold. For too long, I had been juggling eggs, and a large one had just cracked. I couldn’t let any more drop, and I had to add another one back into the mix. “Oh.” Denise quieted a moment, which was saying something because she normally never stopped talking. “Is it your mom?” “I…” I could hardly get the word out. My throat was so tight I could hardly swallow. “What happened?” Denise cracked her knuckles, the sound grating me over the line. “Do you need me to beat someone up for you? I might know a guy…” Despite myself, I snorted with laughter, but then I started to cry. Just a few tears. How could I have let this happened? I should’ve fought harder for my position. Should’ve asked for a pay cut so long as I kept the position. But a pay cut would’ve been almost as terrible as being outright fired. “Talk to me,” Denise said quietly. “What’s going on?” “Just got laid off.” My only source of income gone. Three weeks wouldn’t last. Not when I didn’t just need to support myself. I had to pay for all of my mother’s mounting medical bills. And food. And Mom had taken out a home equity loan shortly a few years ago, so even though there wasn’t a mortgage payment, there was that, and all the other bills, plus food, utilities. “Now listen to me carefully,” Denise ordered. “Go home. Update your resume. I’ll find out who’s hiring. You eat all the chocolate in the house. And drink all of the rum too. I’ll do my best to help find you a new job pronto. Think you can handle that?” I sniffed and rubbed my nose. “Yeah. Sure.” “Good.” She sounded so take charge. Had to love her. “I’ll email you what I find.” Click. The call ended. Refusing to cry any longer, I drove myself home. I wasn’t in a good place at all. Yeah, sure, Denise

was willing to help me, but the economy was terrible. There wasn’t going to be another job for me most likely. I had to face facts. My mom had stage three breast cancer and she needed chemotherapy, but if I had no money, I didn’t know if she’d still be able to continue treatments. The hospital was already giving us a payment plan at least, but I wouldn’t even be able to afford the smaller payments soon. And even with treatment, there was no guarantee she would make it. I couldn’t risk losing her. I had to do everything to help her. It was all on me. Soon, I pulled up to our house. I had moved out after college, but once Mom was diagnosed, I moved back home. Twenty-five and living with Mom. And unemployed too. Can’t forget that. The house was bigger than we needed, but there wasn’t a point in trying to sell it. Not with the home equity loan still out on it. I fixed a smile onto my face and walked inside. I’d left most everything in the backseat of my car. Except for the pictures. Those I placed on the coffee table. “Mom?” I called. “In here,” she said quietly. I winced. Her voice came from her bedroom. She hadn’t even gotten out of bed yet. This morning couldn’t get any worse—for me or for her. Still wearing that faux smile, I helped her wash up and even blow dried her hair as a kind of bonus treat. Her body tended to be weak, and I did whatever I could for her. She was all the family I had left. It wasn’t until I offered to make Mom something to eat that she noticed the time. “Why aren’t you at work?” she asked, trying to glare at me. When I had been a kid, her glare had me shaping up real fast, but it had lost its punch with her being sick. I slowly straightened from having bent down to see what was left in the pantry. The cabinet was looking a little sparse. It would be time for a grocery run soon with money I didn’t have to spend. I faced Mom. “I thought I would check in on you. That’s all.” No way was I going to tell her that I lost my job. Mom had more than enough to worry about as it was. I didn’t want to cause her more stress, more worry. But I couldn’t help feeling helpless. Helpless and worthless. Like I was a failure. Like I was going to be the reason why she might not be able to beat her cancer. And when Denise emailed me later that night to say that she would keep looking, that she hadn’t even found one lead for me, combined with my own fruitless search, I felt even more helpless. What was I going to do?

Chapter Two Ivan

I was outside my bar, on the third story balcony that only my men and I had access to, smoking a fine cigar, when the back door opened behind me, and I just knew my night was going to turn upside down. Just what I didn’t need. This cigar was too good to be ruined. The night was pretty good. Cool. Quiet. Some nights I wanted nothing more than to go out, enjoy myself, maybe have a romp in the sheets. Other times, like right now, I just wanted a little peace. Peace that was about to get ruined, I had a feeling. Luckily, my associate knew better than to bother me and to wait for acknowledgement, so I attempted to enjoy the rest of my cigar before acknowledging his presence, but worry colored the taste of it. I growled out, “Yes?” A stark white envelope was thrust forward. I snatch it, and the man slinked back inside, music and the sounds of drunken good cheer floating up to me for the few seconds that the door was opened. While I appreciated that he was giving me space to read my business alone, that he didn’t wait to be dismissed but dismissed himself raised a red flag in my mind. Who sent the note? I reached down, inside my boot, and removed my concealed dagger. With a flick of my wrist, I unsealed the envelope and read the short note, my peace shattering into a billion pieces that could never be brought together again. V. G. back in town. Thought you would want to know. It was unsigned, unmarked. No way to tell who had sent it, and my man’s disappearance made me think that the person who had dropped off the note was either a possible associate of V.G. or else the note had been discovered without anyone seeing the drop off. I certainly hoped it came from a friend and not an associate of V.G.’s. The thought that someone, friend or foe, could drop off a letter unseen and unnoticed by any of my men was enough to start a rage inside of me, but that was nothing compared to what the contents of the letter inspired. The hairs on the back of my neck rose, and despite the warm nighttime air, goose bumps appeared on my exposed arms. I’d rolled up the sleeves of my blue dress shirt earlier. My fingers curled together around the hilt of the dagger still in my hand, to the point that my hand started to cramp up, but still I held on, relishing in the pain. Vanya Golovkin. The bastard had returned to town, to my town. How dare he show his ugly face around these parts! He had no right to return. No right to step foot on my soil. How long had he been sneaking around in the shadows? It better not have been for long. If my men had grown so lax that they

had missed him for weeks…I would not abide by such a lack of dedication. My other hand had tightened into a fist, and I forced myself to relax, to uncurl my fingers, to return the dagger inside my boot, and to smooth out the letter. I tried to read the words again, but the letters swam on the page. My mind had already been transported back to the worst time of my life. I had only been eight years old when my life had been forever changed by the likes of one Vanya Golovkin. Memories of my parents’ death reared their ugly head. Golovkin and his men had killed my family, every last one of them, and they had managed to get away before they had been caught. The bastards. I would never forgive them. Death might be too kind for them. It had taken me years to get over it—the survivor’s guilt. I had been a coward. As soon as I heard Mother’s screams, I hid away in the safe room my mother had showed me when I had turned two. I knew that was what she would have wanted, what my father would have wanted as well, but even then, as I hid away, I hated myself for it. I had curled up in a ball and waited, trying not to sob but failing. I cried as I heard them shriek and scream and attack, and then they made no more sounds. Of course, the safe room had been soundproof, so as soon as I had closed the door, I hadn’t actually heard the screaming or the fighting back, but I knew my father would not have accepted death easily. My mother either for that matter. That I did not actually hear the sounds did not make what I heard in my mind any less real. Therapy might have been good for me, but I had pushed through the guilt and the grief and reforged my role, taking on my father’s place as leader of the Kovalsky mob. Now I was thirty-two, and I would never allow what happened to my parents to happen to me. I would not be the next to fall. There had been a clock and food and clothes and other provisions in that safe room with me. Once a single day had passed, I couldn’t wait any longer. I had to go and check and see what had happened. Certainly it had to all be over by now. I thought that since my mother hadn’t come for me yet, I was prepared for what I would see. Or so I had mistakenly and foolishly thought. The carnage, though, the stench…my parents’ bodies lay in a puddle of their own blood. Furniture had been overturned. Everywhere I looked, there were signs of chaos, of fighting. My house looked foreign to me. Everything was out of place, out of sorts. It was all wrong. There were a few other bodies too. Father had not gone down without taking out others. I knew from the red and gold the men wore that they were Golovkin’s men. Father had never shied away from telling me the truth about his life, and what would be my life one day. My father never thought that Golovkin would go after him, but that hadn’t meant that my father had been careless. We all had bodyguards. I learned to ignore mine, but his presence was a comfortable shadow. Although I didn’t want to have a bodyguard, I understood and accepted why one was necessary.

My bodyguard was dead too. So were my parents’ bodyguards. So much for the protection they offered. Just before I had left their bedroom, I spied another dead Golovkin man. Buried in his ear was my mother’s dagger. She had fought back too, a fact that did not surprise me. She had been the one to teach me martial arts. She had been born into this life too. She hadn’t married into the mob. It was a part of her, just as it was my father. Or, rather, it had been a part of them. I had tried to remove the dagger from the dead man’s ear, but it had been buried too deeply, so buried I could hardly budge it at all. Luckily, I did find another knife on the floor, and I grabbed that, just in case. Despite considering whether or not this was wise or if I should return to my hiding spot, I searched the rest of the house. A lot of good that did me, although I had been smart to arm myself at least. The living room and the dining room were empty, but another man was lying in wait in the kitchen, his back to me as he rifled through our refrigerator. My hand trembled, and my arc was too wide. I thought I could do it, be like my parents, that I could put up a fight, that I could take him on despite being so much bigger than me. If I had wiped my palms first so they weren’t sweaty, if I hadn’t been so afraid, if my nerves hadn’t gotten the better of me, I might have been able to strike him. But he must have heard me because he whirled around and knocked the knife from my hand. I didn’t even have time to see the gun before he shot me. I collapsed immediately, onto my stomach. I didn’t cry out. I didn’t move. I just lay there. My father had died. My mother had died. And now I was going to die too. That fright I felt just vanished. I was almost…at peace, strangely enough. Dimly, I heard voices, one of which belonged to Vanya Golovkin. They thought me dead. They didn’t double check. And then they left. This time, I waited longer to make sure that no one else was still around. I might have even slept some, but I could never figure out if I had or not. If anything, I probably had passed out from the pain and blood loss more than actually falling asleep. Eventually, some of our men returned, and they took care of me. They took me to a safe house and brought a doctor there to operate on me. During those early days of recovery, I berated myself for leaving the safe room, but no one other than my parents knew where it had been located. And with hearing the screams that were and weren’t real…I might have gone insane had I stayed in there for much longer. Plus, I could use what had happened to my advantage. I could twist things around to suit myself because that fear and nervousness that I had felt when I tried to attack that man had been reborn, just like I had been given a second chance at life. The fear and nervousness were now power and rage.

Vanya Golovkin, that horrible villain, thought I was dead. But I had survived. And I vowed revenge. And now the fiend had dared to return. I shook my head to blot out the memories and held onto the railing of the balcony. I could barely stop myself from hunting down Golovkin right this very moment and executing him right where he stood, but I knew I had to do more than that. I had to ruin Golovkin and his family completely before enacting my vengeance, or more like as part of my vengeance. I’d never forget how I felt when I realized he had also killed my aunt and uncle and my ten-year-old cousin. Every blood relative of mine he had killed. A swift death would be too kind. Quicker than a snake, I reentered my bar and took my private stairs all the way down to the basement. In addition to the bar, I also ran an underground gambling ring. It was past time for tonight’s game of cards. Everyone would be waiting on me, and while it might be a good idea to keep them on their toes, I did not want to be alone right now. My men greeted me warmly, but I had no smiles to share tonight. I retrieved a bottle of imported beer and drank all of it before sitting down to play. After the obligatory game with everyone, during which I only had one more beer, I broke off to a side table with my right-hand men, Alec and Nicolai. Alec cut the deck and dealt the cards. “What is it?” he asked quietly out of the corner of his mouth. An old knife wound caused the left side of his mouth to not move. It gave him a startling appearance. It also made him too distinct to be able to melt into a crowd, so I tended to keep him close by me. “Vanya Golovkin is back,” I said without preamble, watching their faces closely. “Want me to knife him in the back?” Nicolai offered, his hand going to his side. He always kept at least ten weapons on him at all times. Honestly, it was surprising that Alec had the visible scar compared to Nicolai, who got into more than double the amount of fights as Alec. I waved his words and his offer away. “Killing him isn’t enough. He and his family will be ruined first.” I slapped my fist into my open palm. “How are we going to do that?” Alec asked. He fiddled with the cards in this hand, but I knew I had his full attention. He was trying to make sure that no one was paying us any attention, that they would think we were just playing a round. That he felt the need to put on a show here, when we were surrounded by my men, made me uneasy. I could trust everyone here…couldn’t I? I would be a fool to blindly trust them all, and I was no fool. “We’ll think of something.” I appraised the two of them. We had gone through the wars together. Nicolai and Alec were trustworthy, maybe even more trustworthy than I was myself. They would help me with everything, no matter how crazy it seemed.

And this next part was going to seem more than a little crazy. “I also need to take care of something else,” I added casually. I laid a card down, continuing Alec’s charade. “What is it?” Nicolai asked. He tossed his cards down, folding without even looking at them first. “I need to find a woman to sire an heir in case I should be killed,” I said as calmly as if I had asked for a new suit. I was the last remaining Kovalsky, and without an heir, my family mob would disintegrate. I would never ever allow that to happen. Vanya Golovkin had taken too much from me already. He would not take my future too. I would not go down without a fight. I would not go down period.

Chapter Three Rachel

The next morning went by quicker than I thought possible. Between taking care of Mom and searching for job leads on my computer, I was so stressed out I wanted to rip out all of my hair one strand at a time. My cell rang, and I groaned. I wearily rubbed my tired eyes and answered it. “Hello?” I ran a hand down my face. All I wanted to do was to go back to bed. To go back to yesterday and find a way to keep my job. No. To go back to before Mom’s diagnosis. No. Even farther back, so that I could force Mom to get checked much earlier. If the cancer had been found earlier, maybe she would’ve been cured by now. But that was all wishful thinking, and wishes were for fools. “You aren’t the only one having a hard time right now,” Denise said gloomily. She sounded far unhappier than she had in a long, long time. “Uh-oh,” I said sympathetically. Suddenly, I didn’t feel so tired anymore. “What happened?” “It’s…” She sighed heavily. “I don’t wanna dump on you. You have so much more on your plate, more than anyone should have to deal with and—” “Denise. I’m your best friend. Of course I want to know what’s going on. Just because my life is going down the toilet doesn’t mean I can’t still be here for you.” “You sure?” When I didn’t respond—was waiting for her to just spill the beans already—she added, “Well, after I tried to find you leads, I went out with Alec.” She paused. I grimaced. Denise liked bad boys, and Alec was probably the baddest out of all of the ones she had dated. I didn’t care for the guy, personally, but Denise had been head over heels for him. She really thought he might be the one. Of course, she thought that with every guy she dated. And the worst part about Alec was that he was probably a mobster. Seriously. Who would date a guy like that? Yeah, even I thought he was hot, but that shouldn’t be enough to make someone turn a blind eye to his flaws. Denise liked to walk the wild side, and while I liked bad boys myself—more accurately, I had a major weakness for them—a mobster? Never! “What happened?” I asked, kinda hoping that he had dumped her because Denise wasn’t even considering that, and she just plain didn’t see that he was no good for her. She deserved someone who would treat her like gold. I’d never forget the time she called me in tears because Alec cancelled

plans on her at the last minute. She’d spent a pretty penny on tickets to a ball game for the two of them for his birthday, and something came up and he just dropped the, well, he dropped the ball. I clicked on the next link for a company looking for a secretary. Not much of a web presence and it would be an hour commute. Too far. If something happened to Mom, I needed to be much closer to home. Cross that one off the list. “Did you hear me?” Denise asked. Her tone suggested mild annoyance, which actually made me feel a little better since I’d rather her feel angry with me than for her to wallow I winced. The last thing I needed was to push my only true support away. “I’m sorry. I’m a little distracted. What did you say?” “He dumped me,” Denise wailed. “I can’t believe it. I mean, I gave him everything he could have asked for. I was the perfect girlfriend for him. I was kind and loving and not too clingy. I just don’t know what went wrong.” “It’s a good thing,” I muttered without thinking. “What was that?” she asked, her tone sharp. Crap. I hadn’t meant to say that out loud. Me and my big mouth. “It’s—” “It’s not a good thing!” she fumed. “How could you say that? Seriously, Rachel! You know how much I cared for him!” I winced again. “I didn’t—” “I heard you!” she shouted. “I’m sorry. I’m just…I’m overwhelmed. I’m trying to find a new job and—” “You want a new job? I got one for you.” She still sounded pissed, so whatever job she was going to mention was going to be completely off the wall. “Maybe you should get with Alec’s boss.” “His boss?” What was she talking about? “Yeah, some guy named Ivan. I’ve met him a few times.” She didn’t sound quite so pissed any more at least. “I thought Alec was hot, but even he has nothing on Ivan.” Now that was saying something. What did this guy look like? “What about this hot Ivan?” “You should get with him,” Denise said. “Ivan’s looking for a woman to give him an heir. He wants to knock someone up, and it sounds like he’s willing to pay big money for it.”

What the heck? How in the world could Denise even propose such a thing for me to do? She must be really ticked off that I hadn’t been listening to her. Or she really was seriously bent over Alec. But even more than her suggesting it, I was taken aback by the whole idea of needing an heir. “Isn’t that really archaic?” I asked. “Kinda. It’s probably a Russian thing. It’s kinda strange, I know.” Too strange for me. I shook my head. “Hey, I really am sorry I wasn’t listening to you more. You just know how I feel about Alec. You deserve better. I’m just looking out for you. You know I always have your back.” Denise blew out a breath. “Yeah, I know you always hated him,” she muttered. “Hate’s too strong a word. I just love you enough to be real with you. You need a guy who can be there for you. How many times did he blow you off for unknown reasons? He always had excuses, but he never bothered to share them,” I pointed out. “You have a point. It’s just…he made me laugh and smile, and yeah…you might have a point. I wasn’t completely stupid for being with him, was I?” “No,” I assured her. Alec, for all of his faults, had made Denise happier than some of the other guys she’d dated. “Well, my lunch break is just about over. Gotta run.” She hesitated. “I’m sorry I brought up the whole Ivan thing. I know it’s not your thing.” I laughed without humor. “Right? Totally crazy.” We hung up, and for the next hour, I called around to a bunch of companies to see if they had any job openings. I even called up that place that was way too far of a commute. Nothing worked out. They either weren’t looking to hire anyone or else had already hired someone and so any positions were now unavailable. This was unreal. I couldn’t believe it, but I was so incredibly desperate that I was actually thinking about it. The idea of Ivan needing an heir…it sounded so old-fashioned, and it also made me think about the notion of old money too. This Ivan…would he be willing to pay top dollar to the surrogate? Just how much money were we talking? Denise had mentioned big money, but just how big? No. This was crazy talk. There had to be another job out there. There had to be. I did more digging and found a few small restaurants that were looking for waitresses, but the pay was laughable and the area of town they were situated in meant that tips were not going to be stellar. Hell, I might make more money collecting from unemployment than if I took one of them. Maybe instead of waiting on tables, I should dance on them.

Which had me cycling back around Ivan and his heir. Just then, coughing sounded. I raced to Mom’s room. She was sleeping fitfully, tossing and turning. She had lost a lot of weight since her diagnosis, and there were times when I almost didn’t recognize her. She was so frail. Treatment was almost running her more ragged than the cancer itself. I hated seeing her so weak and worn all the time. She used to run me everywhere. I did a bunch of sports in school, and she got me clothes and equipment from secondhand stores. After Dad died, we didn’t have a lot of money, but I never wanted for anything. She gave me everything I could have ever hoped for. Now, all I hoped for was for her to enter remission. I closed the door quietly and walked away. I would do anything for Mom. I would go to any length to ensure she could still receive treatment, so she had her best chance at remission. Which meant that I knew what I had to do. I was going to seek out this Ivan guy and offer myself as the mother of his child.

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Other Works by Ashley Hall Check out other Ashley Hall books by clicking the covers below! Hunted

She was searching for answers. But now the hunter has become the hunted. I’m a killer, a rogue. I prey on the predators of this sick and twisted world. The men I send to the grave have earned their one-way ticket. They’re animals. Monsters. Less than human. Still, some say I go too far. Too bad I don’t give a damn what they think. In my realm, I am judge, jury, and executioner. But when my ex old lady stumbles back into my life, her memory scrambled by a vicious car accident,

all the roles get mixed up. Nothing seems so clear-cut anymore. Do I succumb to her temptation? Do I reclaim what’s mine: her body, heart, and soul? Or do I turn my back on her petite little curves and focus on my self-appointed mission? My burden is heavy, and she isn’t making it any easier. She’d better be careful, though. Because I’m about to turn my sights on her.


It takes a perfect bastard to ruin a perfect life… Wesley Sykes was everything I was taught to stay away from – cocky, foul-mouthed, and living in perpetual sin. He looked the part, too, with broad shoulders wrapped in a leather jacket and a smile designed by the Devil himself. And now he’s moving in…to my perfect, religious household. All my life I had been the good girl. Wes warned me he was no good, and every time I wanted to get too close, he reminded me of who he was. I wanted to hate him for it, but I couldn’t. Every time he said no just made me want him even more, and no matter how many times I laid in bed, dreaming of his hands on me, it was never enough. I had to try it. So I did. Just once, I promised myself. But once temptation finally won, once wasn’t enough for either of us. There's no turning back now. I'm just praying that no one ever finds out about the things he’s done to

my body when no one was looking. But under this roof, nothing ever stays secret for long‌

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